July 22, 2024

You’re the Boss: What I’ve Learned From Blogging

Paul Downs: “I’m feeling excited about coming to work again.”Laura Pedrick for The New York Times Paul Downs: Getting advice is easy. Executing is hard.
Staying Alive

It’s been 13 months since I started writing about my business, and I’ve posted 60 times since then. I’ve been asked by many people how I got involved with “You’re the Boss.” The short answer: good timing and luck.

I had been a regular reader of the blog since it was introduced. In December 2009, with my company weeks from running out of money, I started searching the Internet for blogs dealing with business failure — and found nothing useful or compelling. All of the business journalism I came across had the same focus: stories about success, often after struggle but usually describing it as the inevitable reward for hard work and good ideas. There was nothing that described the experience of business failure in depth and at length, especially involving regular Main Street businesses.

After a particularly bad day, I sent an e-mail to the editor of this blog, asking if the Times would be interested in a failing business — and offering to document what I expected would be our company’s imminent demise. I heard nothing for two months, during which I laid off many of my people, continued to struggle with my partner and came very close to running out of money.

But in February 2010, I got an e-mail back from the Times, with an apology for the tardy reply. The e-mail said the idea was of interest and asked what exactly I intended to write about. The difficulty of keeping a business alive, I replied — and I offered a list of subjects that had bedeviled me, including cash flow, employee problems, partner problems, the crumby economy, and plenty more. By chance, I had to be in New York the following week, so I arranged a meeting with the editor.

I told him my story, and he thought it had potential. He had been thinking about adding a struggling business to the lineup, and we discussed how it might work. I offered to write the posts anonymously, because I wanted to be free to write candidly about my experiences. I also wanted to demonstrate that I wasn’t trying to get publicity for my business. (I believed then — and continue to believe — that there is almost no intersection between this blog’s readers and my clientele.) The Times wasn’t interested in anonymous posts, but the editor did ask me to write some sample posts.

I went home and in seven days wrote 10 posts that wound up forming the basis of my blogging: the first group about the history of my company, followed by a series of posts on one harrowing week: My Week In Cash Flow. And then, in March and April last year, my business started to turn around, and my focus turned from the demise of my company to the many difficult issues I confront in running it.

I haven’t found the writing to be difficult. Much of my day at work is spent composing, mostly e-mails to clients or my staff. I write the blog posts at home, generally after a stiff drink, usually starting about 9:30 at night. Some weeks the words flow without much effort, and other weeks it’s like pulling teeth. The average post takes me two to three hours to write. They usually get a good reception from the editor.

Blogging has been useful for me. Describing my problems in writing, in a widely read forum, has forced me to identify the primary issues in each situation and to prioritize which are most important. Almost everything I write about is more complicated than a 1,000-word post can cover, so I first write down everything I can think of on a given subject, and then I whittle, whittle, and whittle some more. Problems and the factors that affect them fall into several categories, only some of which can be discussed publicly:

1. Things that are common to all businesses (accounting, taxes, health insurance).

2. Things that are different for different kinds of businesses (production, marketing, corporate structure, employees).

3. Things that are very risky to write about (problems that might affect a potential client’s perception of the business).

4. Things which should not be made public (the particulars of individual employees personalities and actions).

My strategy has been to use the particulars of running a small factory to try to illustrate how I deal with problems common to all businesses. This is somewhat limiting, but in the wonderful new world of Internet journalism, the commenters can offer different perspectives on how these issues play out in different situations.

Surprisingly, writing the blog has had little effect on my life, other than adding an interesting line to my résumé. There are no groupies, no speeches, no book deals and no income stream comparable to my regular salary. Most of the people I know read the blog occasionally or not at all. My new part-time gig did give me a boost in self-confidence at a rocky moment — at the end of 2009, I was seriously contemplating what my life would be like if I had no job nor workplace to go to. At least I can write, I figured. But I’m glad I still have my day job.

From a business perspective, blogging has been an incredible education. I have exchanged e-mails with more than 100 readers, which has been interesting. And then there are the commenters, who have provided an enormous amount of useful, and sometimes distressing, feedback. Thank you all for taking the time to chime in. In a nutshell, here’s what I’ve learned from commenters:

o Ask questions, and you will get answers. So if you are in a tight situation, the first thing to do is find a way to ask for help. Anyone with Internet access can find advice, fast, on almost any kind of issue. Industry-specific forums are extremely useful, but the important thing is to seek advice actively, as opposed to simply digesting what’s already out there. As I said before, the act of writing a problem down will help you clarify it in your mind.

o A question’s format affects the relevance of the answers. Ask general questions, and you get general advice. Ask specific questions, get specific answers.

o I can tell which commenters have been bosses, and which haven’t. People who have never run a business are often ignorant of the type of problems that owners encounter.

o Getting advice is easy, executing it is hard. Particularly when you’re stretched thin, it can be tough to implement change in a struggling organization.

Next: The Best Comment.

Paul Downs founded Paul Downs Cabinetmakers in 1986. It is based outside of Philadelphia.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=ebcd9a568002d8fea83a27c9fe642035

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