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Boss Life: Surviving My Own Small Business

When columnist Paul Downs was approached by The New York Times to write for their “You’re the Boss” blog, he had been running his custom furniture business for twenty-four years strong. or mostly strong. Now, in his first book, Downs paints an honest portrait of a real business, with a real boss, a real set of employees, and the real challenges they face.

A Letter from Paul Downs

Dear Bookseller,

A business owner lies awake at night, wondering if he’s the only one having trouble making payroll. A corporate worker is ready to bet her 401(k) that she can open her own independent bookstore. An MBA student wants to bring manufacturing back to his town. A struggling artisan wonders why she can’t make sales. None of these people lacks information: a barrage of smug advice arrives from every direction, otherwise known as business journalism. But it’s the wrong kind of help: glib, brief, and focused on a fairy-tale version of success. Nobody is telling you what it’s really like to run a small business.

I’ve been running my own company for twenty-nine years. Most of that time I’ve been closer to failure than to prosperity. In 2010, I was invited to share my struggles on a blog for The New York Times. The feedback I received taught me that I’m not the only person who hasn’t mastered business ownership, and that there is a real hunger for information that doesn’t sugarcoat the boss life.

I wrote this book to shine light on the day-to-day life of a small business owner. I chose to record the events of a single year, 2012, in which I faced a complex mix of opportunities and challenges. I didn’t try to divide the experience into neat lessons, because that’s not how they happened. Instead, I take the reader along with me as I figure out what to do next. It was a hard year. I made a critical business mistake that nearly killed the company, and at the same time I struggled with a difficult family situation. It all makes a great story, especially because I’m still in business today.

The details here may be particular to my company, but the problems I encounter are universal for small business owners: Making sales and managing budgets. Developing new products. Inspiring employees when things aren’t going well. Firing those who need to go. And doing what it takes to keep the doors open in the face of setbacks.

From Ebenezer Scrooge to Mr. Burns on The Simpsons, bosses are portrayed as evil, vindictive, and relentless in their pursuit of power. It’s much harder to find a sympathetic portrayal of a real boss: someone who cares about his workers and tries to promote his employees’ well-being and his own. That’s me. That’s Boss Life.

Thank you very much in advance for your support.

Yours truly,

Paul Downs


“In this eye-opening debut…Downs drills down into the ins and outs of running a small business, focusing on sales, operations, money, and the personal demands of being a boss….this frank accounting will be a godsend to any small-company owners wondering if they’re the only ones constantly second-guessing themselves—or on the verge of going out of business. An honest look at a usually overlooked demographic.”

Publishers Weekly

“[A] large-hearted memoir… Refreshingly absent of bulleted lists and sidebars, this is a welcome addition to the literature of business ownership.”
Kirkus Reviews

“[A] day-to-day, minute-to-minute tour of the intricacies of running a business, from dealing with employees to negotiating with vendors, the roller-coaster ride of sales, and the headaches of customer service. This is an invaluable look into operational details for anyone considering starting a business or caught up in the struggle of owning and running one.”


“This book is ostensibly about a year in the life of a small business owner, but it is actually a fascinating peek behind the scenes of a small Pennsylvania furniture factory….The combination of a humorous, self-deprecating, jargon-free writing style and content that mixes business fundamentals (cash flow, salesmanship, HR issues) with day-to-day events on the shop floor makes for a truly immersive narrative….A great read for those who wish to understand what running a small factory or business entails, as well as anyone interested in woodworking and craftsmanship.”

Library Journal

“A welcome departure from Silicon Valley tales of million-dollar angel investors and boy geniuses, Boss Life is about a regular guy... Downs delivers an eye-opening tutorial in small-business ownership, and his straightforward storytelling is effective and engaging.” –Success Magazine