Paul Downs wrote for the New York Times’ “You’re The Boss” blog for five years, and has owned and run his own small business for nearly thirty years. Now, he’s written a book about his experiences and is eager to pass on his hard-earned wisdom.
If you’re considering diving into entrepreneurship, enter the giveaway at the end of this article. If you’re one of our five winners we’ll send you a copy of Paul’s book.
Paul shared his insights with me on running a long-standing, successful small business and writing a book about the experience. If you enjoy this article, be sure to enter the book giveaway.
How did you get where you are today?
If by “where you are today” you mean with a semi-successful business, I’ve had some luck, been very persistent, and been able to take advantage of the hard work and talents of my employees. The thing I wonder, though, is whether someone else, in my circumstances, would have built a more profitable business, or would they have failed? I’m not operating the kind of business with a lot of peers to compare to. So I always have that doubt.
Why did you start your own business? What inspired you?
I was fresh out of college, working as helper to a carpenter who wished that he was a furniture maker. He described the joys of that trade so vividly that I decided to give it a try. I even invited him to be my partner. He was recently divorced, with a mortgage and alimony payments, and politely declined to take the risk. So I, being young, confident, and without responsibility, decided to give it a go.
What do you hope your readers will get from this book?
When I read, I want the author to guide me on a trip through a world that I don’t know. My life as a boss is extremely complex, and has a lot of unpredictable elements. Most business books are just advice, purportedly from successful people, and don’t convey the difficulty of dealing with multiple challenges at once. So I’m hoping that by talking about the issues I face, simultaneously, every day—sales, cash flow, employees, and family—I can show people what running a small business is really like.
“When I read, I want the author to guide me on a trip through a world that I don’t know.”
Maybe some readers will be inspired to start their own business, and maybe some readers will realize that being the boss is not for them. But everyone should be able to relate to the narrative of how we survived a very tough year.
What was the biggest challenge you’ve had running a business?
Overcoming my own weaknesses. I’ve never had any training in the financial aspects of business, and my ignorance has been a real impediment to the growth of the firm. The recession in 2008 was tough, too.
What does your typical day look like?
Picture a to-do list with five to 10 items on it. They could be anything that, in a larger firm, would be performed by a specialist or a department: sales, IT, accounting, finance, HR, marketing, engineering, design—I do a little bit of all of that. Of those five to 10 items, I’ll probably complete three before being interrupted by something that comes out of the blue. While I’m fighting my way through those tangles, I have to try to keep the company moving on longer term goals. So my days can be quite chaotic. But never boring.
Is there something you feel that you could not have created your business without?
Day in and day out, it’s paying customers that keep us going.
How does business planning factor into what you do? Do you track business metrics or KPIs?
I opened my doors before it was common for small businesses to own a computer, and long before the internet. So my record keeping has developed from very primitive to reasonably good. My first records were written on the wall of my first shop. Now I have a bunch of different databases and spreadsheets. But never having received any formal business training, I could probably be doing a much better job with metrics and planning.
What advice can you give aspiring entrepreneurs who want to start and run a business?
It won’t be like you think it’s going to be. Money can solve a lot of problems, so make sure you have a way of getting some. And find people to talk to, don’t keep your problems bottled up inside.
You’ve seen the small business landscape change dramatically as technology becomes ever more present. What do you envision the future [will be] like for small businesses?
It really depends on the business, but I would say that every boss now has access to far more information about how to run a business than ever before. What that will most likely mean is that existing businesses, unless they are destroyed by shifts in the economy, will be better run, making it harder for a new business to find a space in the market. I’m not sure whether this is a good thing or bad thing.
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