Sunday, August 1, 2021

Should You Run A Business? Probably Not!

Very few of us are cut out to be business people.
Cheerful sign to welcome customers to your business!

Be your own boss! Start you own business! the advertisements proclaim.  Most of them are for frauds.  But it is an interesting angle they use - apparently a lot of salary slaves believe that running your own business is some sort of Shangri-La, where you sit behind a big desk all day long, with your feet up, while your minions do all the work - and even count your piles of money for you!

But the reality is often far more harsh, and many a salary slave has given up a sure thing, in terms of a retirement plan and a 401(k) and squandered it all on starting a business, only to see their dreams shattered and their future destroyed.  I wrote before about a friend who took an "early out" from a company.  It was popular in the 1990's, when many rustbelt companies were failing and offering cash sums to employees to leave - or else!  And employees, used to getting paychecks, think any amount of money more than a years' salary is a lot.

So they take the money and leave and often find out it isn't enough to live on for the rest of their lives.  My friend - like many others - decided to take this money and start a business with a friend.  Actually, he tried more than one business.  Each one went bust - as statistics show is the norm - and depleted his little pile of money further and further.  Finally, he wised up and realized that just having enough money to get by was a good deal and gave up on his dreams of avarice.

The failure rate of small businesses is enough to give anyone pause.  But the problems go further than that.  I wrote before about ill-conceived ventures that go broke regularly, such as the coffee shop in Lansing, or the various NASCAR collectible shops.  Another friend opened a shop on "The Commons" - a street in Ithaca which was blocked off and made into a pedestrian walkway (another trend from the 1990's) surrounded by restaurants and candle-and-soap shops. After running his own gift shop for a year, my friend said to me, "The Commons is where dreams go to die!" - this after seeing a half-dozen stores go bust, just in the short time he was there.  And yes, his went bust, as well.

Your average salary slave has no idea how to run a business.  They don't figure out who their customer base will be, how much they are willing to pay, what the overhead will cost, what the cost of materials and labor is like - none of that.  They just hang out a sign and hope business comes, and often there is not enough business to even pay the light bill, much less themselves.  It is sad.  Employees have no business acumen.

I realized this myself, when I started my own business.  I had no idea about accounting practices, and it wasn't until I bought a copy of Quickbooks that I figured out one of my largest clients wasn't paying me.  It was kind of embarrassing, really.  But you can be the best in the business, but if you don't mind the bottom line, you go broke.  Mr. See had the same problem with his catering business - he "forgot" to send an invoice to a client, and didn't do so until they called wondering why.  You can't run a business that way.

But beyond the nuts-and-bolts of running a business is your personality.  Very few of us are cut out to be managers or business owners.  It is a tricky business, if you'll pardon the pun.  You have to be firm yet fair with employees.  You don't want them walking all over you, but on the other hand, you don't want them quitting in droves because you are a task-master. You have to cajole them into working hard - making money for you - and yet not be their friend at the same time.  Most salary slaves, used to having an "asshole boss!" think they can enact some sort of social justice by being nice to their employees, and oftentimes this backfires and they are twice as much of an asshole as a result.

At the same time, you may have to serve the public - your clients and customers. And you have to be pleasant and firm with them, in similar, yet different way that with your employees. You can't treat customers like employees - they will run away. And if you treat employees like customers, they won't work very hard and ironically, will likely quit, too, as no one likes a "soft" boss, even as they profess otherwise.

There are just some folks who shouldn't deal with the public.  I'm probably one of them myself.   I don't tolerate a lot of nonsense, and how people behave as customers (alas, even I) is often embarrassing.  Everyone wants special treatment and a discount and throws a fit when it doesn't happen.  Kevin and Karen rear their ugly heads.   It takes a special person to smile and say "have a nice day" when a customer has been ugly.

But sometimes, the person behind the counter is even worse. And such people should not run a business.  What got me started on this was we visited a campground in New England run by a guy who seems to hate life and hate humanity.  We read and heard positive reviews of the place, but were warned by some folks that "the owner is a little weird!"  When you visit the campground, the first thing you see are a plethora of "No Trespassing!" signs stapled to all the trees by the entrance. A real warming welcome!

When you go to a KOA or other commercial campground, you are greeted with a friendly smile and a "how are you?"  The employees are trained out of a handbook to be pleasant, and most are "work-campers" who are RV'ers themselves.  They know that at the end of a long day wrestling a motorcoach down the highway, the last thing you need is to see a grumpy person behind the desk, or worse yet, someone who thinks sarcasm is the height of hilarity.

Not so here.  You go to the office and the first thing that greets you is a giant sign with a picture of a handgun aimed at you, with the notation, "There ain't nuthin' in here worth you dyin' for!" which is weird.  I mean, do they have this fear of being violated or something?  Someone is going to take all their firewood money?

The owner was even less friendly. He complained, he bitched, he acted like we ruined his day by coming there.  And he wanted all-cash (audit bait!) as well.   And while we were checking in, we were treated to a litany of grievances he had against other guests and former guests, who he gleefully told us were "banned for life!" (which we later learned was a favorite phrase of his).  When I asked him some simple, basic question (Does this site have full hookup?) he responded with sarcasm.

He was abrasive, a bully, and also passive-aggressive. Vague responses to specific questions were his specialty.  "What time is the potluck supper?" for example, was answered with a question. We finally figured out it was at 6:00 PM, but that really didn't help much, as he delayed the start of it by a half-hour, so all the food was sure to be cold, including the entree we brought.  You don't want to know what happened to the ice cream another camper brought.  Soup, anyone?

Worse yet was the way he bullied the guests - shouting at them and shaming them and threatening, always threatening, to "ban them for life!" as if not going to his campground would be a deprivation.  The "seasonal" guests who stayed for the summer all talked trash about him behind his back and called him nicknames like "The Landlady."   Why you would want to stay for more than a few days at such a place is beyond me.  Why anyone would want to stay at all is beyond me.  Why we stayed, is beyond me.

The weird thing was, he claimed to have worked "with the public" all his life, and was sick of it.  So why not open a campground, where you will be serving the public?  Tellingly, the campground is for sale (no takers yet).  I suspect that it will be a hard sell, as on paper, he isn't making a profit (he claims), but under-the-counter, all that cash income goes right into a cigar box.  That is the conundrum with an all-cash business that is playing dodge-the-IRS. You might make good money, but of course, be subject to home invasion (hence all the threatening signs) and you risk the ire of the IRS in terms of being audited.  Cash businesses are their favorite! And yes, they can use forensic accounting to figure out you're cheating. All it takes is one disgruntled customer to blow him in, and he's minting those like coins.

But worse is that if you go to sell the business, it is darn hard to prove it is profitable, when you've been siphoning-off all the cash over the years.  You can't blame a buyer for being skeptical, when your books show modest profits or small losses, from year to year.

The other problem in running your own business is age. At age 61, I don't want to run a business, which is why I retired.  It is not that I can't do all the hard work required, it is just that I don't want to.  But more than that, I realize that to successfully run such a business, I would need a decade just to get it going.  And that would be well into my 70's.  Life is finite - something you don't realize until you hit 60 or so.  So running a business seems like a perpetual thing to a 30-year-old, it is a closed-end deal to a 60-year-old.

Many of these campgrounds (private ones, not the big chains) suffer from this problem.  Mom and Dad decide to run a campground, but don't think about the end game or where it will go from there.  They get old, and they get tired, and they become friends with the tenants and don't raise their rates.  They stop doing improvements and maybe attendance tapers off.  Their client base dies off - literally.  Some young buck who took the "Trailer Park University" seminar, buys the place for a pittance, and then doubles the lot rent, evicting the old-time tenants. Without a succession plan in place, this is usually what happens to RV parks and trailer parks, as the owners "age out" of the system.

Sometimes, I think it might be interesting to run a campground.  But listen to any owner, and all they do is bitch, bitch, bitch, about the government, taxes, regulations, zoning, the customers, the suppliers, and of course, the employees.  Not only that, I realize that serving the public is no Swiss picnic - people can be pleasant or irrational.  You have to be pleasant, all the time.  And the vaunted "profits" are often illusory.  And to keep the place in business, you have to keep making capital improvements and doing repairs and overhauls all the time.   You can spot the parks where they stopped doing maintenance - they are circling the drain.

It just struck me as odd, that this fellow decided to start an RV park, when his personality was so ill-suited to running any kind of business serving the public.  Not only that, he is a few years older than I am, and quite frankly, I would be terrified of risking capital to start a business at this stage in my life, when I am coasting comfortably toward the great inevitable.

I am not sure we will ever come back to this park.  The setting is nice and the infrastructure is above-average.  The people are friendly - except for the owner, of course.   Sadly, too, is that all the surrounding land is being developed for housing.  I suspect that the park will be sold, eventually, not to someone who wants to run an RV park, but to someone who wants to bulldoze everything and plant a new crop of vinyl-sided homes.

All that work, and all that effort, for nothing.  That surely will drive the landlady over the edge!