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.
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