Wisdom from the Boss

LAPFinalEveryone has something to teach me. Even if it’s as simple as: Avoid that person.

As John and I plunge into our eighth year of running Lost Art Press, I am reminded of three things that I learned about life and business from Steve Shanesy, my old boss at Popular Woodworking Magazine. Steve was the best boss I ever had. And though we didn’t always see eye to eye about the magazine’s content, we always worked together – never against one another.

Lesson No. 1: Business is a fight. It’s a struggle and it always will be. If you think it’s going to get easier next financial quarter or next year, you are wrong. So either accept that, or go work for someone else. Corollary: Business and magazines are not democracies, nor should they be.

Lesson No. 2: Sometimes the best action is to do nothing. It’s easy to react quickly to something. But that’s not always the best thing to do. Sometimes doing nothing and watching things unfold is the best course. I spent 18 years observing Steve and learning this valuable skill from him – it might be the best thing he ever taught me. Know when to act swiftly and when to pause.

Lesson No. 3: It’s a story that Steve told me once about one of their countertop suppliers when he was in the furniture trade. One time Steve was visiting the guy’s shop when some customers came in to pick up their order, a custom-made countertop.

The customers asked for a discount – not because the work was shoddy, but because they could.

The countertop guy said: No. The customers said, “OK, we’ll pay full price.”

The countertop guy said: No. I won’t sell this to you. I’d sooner destroy the countertop than sell it to you. Get the &^$% out of my shop.”

I’ll allow you to extract the lesson from that story.

Year eight has begun. Let the fight continue.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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69 Responses to Wisdom from the Boss

  1. meanmna says:

    Those are great lessons that unfortunately more and more entering the workplace are not learning soon enough. Especially the one about work not being a democracy.

    Also, while I have never had the opportunity to witness anyone actually demonstrating principals such as that shown in your lesson 3 I have had the privilege of working for two people that I think would take a similar position.

  2. lew60 says:

    We all have our business practices and price points. Haggling in many cultures is the way business is done, if you don’t haggle, you can assume you paid too much. I find quite a few who are offended by the practice. I think you have to know who you are doing business with. I suppose your friend could afford to be petulent and drive away business, I’m sure those people didn’t recommend him to their friends. He could have been polite, more generous and taken the time to explain his pricing.
    Freemarketers are not always consistent in their beliefs. I know one wealthy landlord who for decades has extracted wealth forom his tenants with onerous leases. When he proposed an apartment complex, he wanted a tax break.
    The craft business is plagued by clientele who would go to NYC and pay more for the same Item they can purchase here at lower cost. The hotel room in NYC would be a deal breaker for most people. Prestige of where the item is purchased comes into play.

  3. toolnut says:

    Congrats! You’ve created a nice little business for yourselves. And yeah, owning/running a business can be a royal pain in the butt with worries, headaches, time commitment etc, but they are worries you can adress because they are yours, ( vs. worries like losing your job because of a line on someone else’s balance sheet.) and the rewards are worth it. You guys have great products and I hope you have continued success.

  4. tyronewoodwork says:

    Interesting, I have been fighting that fight for 13 years since starting my business and I was just telling a saleswomen I had in my office before getting a notification of your post, the same thing. But some day’s I would love to walkaway and just be an employee. I personally have enjoyed your fight and keep up the great work. I have some customers I would love to use No 3 on.

  5. ejcampbell says:

    Haggling over price AHEAD of time is OK. You either agree or not. If you’ve agreed to pay a certain price for the work and then haggle at the last minute, you are in essence breaking your word. Cultures that expect haggling also have a strong tradition of sticking to the negotiated price and respecting the handshake. Customer was way out of line.

    • Just to be clear before this turns into Marxist/Adam Smith debate, the lesson has nothing to do with haggling. Nada. So think again.

      • Craft, trades, design and business all have an inherent value above and beyond raw materials. The cost of my 12 years of education—and a craftsperson’s apprenticeship education— experience and intuition is amortized over every project we do from here on in (and is not reflected in the base cost of materials, be they paper & binding or wood).

        I don’t want to do business with individuals that do not respect the inherent value of my experience, education and intuition. Those assets are why, I would hope, they hired me in the first place.

        On the graphic design/freelancer side, there’s a well documented continuum of politeness that ranges from “freelance ain’t free” to “fuck you, pay me.” I feel lesson 3 falls somewhere on the latter half of that continuum.

  6. mrogen says:

    Having worked for small a business with 3 people to a mega-huge 40,000 world wide employee business where I had enormous responsibilities and inevitably Lesson Number: Two was the most valuable lesson I learned. And not just in business but in life as well.
    Congrats on the first 7 and good luck to many, many more years to come!

  7. knewconcepts says:

    I agree with toolnut!
    Congrats to Chris and the entire team that make it work (nobody is a “one man band”). If you have created a business that gives you pleasure every morning when you get up, and you know that what you do is making a positive difference, how can it get any better?
    Sure, it can be hard work, but it beats working 🙂

    Lee (the saw guy)

  8. mysticcarver says:

    All well thought out business practices. Congrats on the 7 great years and I for one am looking forward to seeing the new heights your amazing firm will go. I have enjoyed everything so far. Even though I am just one I hope I speak for all.

  9. mysticcarver says:

    I take from lesson #3 more a sense of appreciation for work well done. At least that is my take on it.

  10. stone58 says:

    Ok. #3 is a Rorschach test. And the lesson is somehow political, involving Barack and Michelle.

  11. Wesley Beal says:

    I’ll make a guess – is it to pick your customers?

    I’m really glad you guys are doing this. This blog is an enjoyable part of my day, and everything I’ve purchased here I’d readily recommend to another.

  12. jhovde@cox.net says:

    Hi, Could I get a discount on your Book of Plates, it really lookas great? Jim

  13. Terry Day says:

    Congratulations Chris. I know that you will continue in your success. I have a new business strategy right up there with making posters. Chain Roy up and force him to write a couple of sequels of Calvin Cobb and tape 35 Woodwright Shops per year.

  14. Jason says:

    #3. Making counter tops all day turns you grouchy?

  15. Farmer Greg says:

    Lesson Three: You are a highly skilled craftsman and a professional; price your work accordingly and without fear or apology.

  16. error4 says:

    I don’t know the answer either if its not about haggling. Now I’m obsessing over what it could be. I’m down to “don’t work for the money” or “swearing at rude customers is fun and empowering.” Or ” “there’s more ways to re-use a custom countertop than you’d think.” or “It feels superior to make some of your customers and followers feel like idiots when they make a mistake, and sadly some people will respect you for posturing like that”.

    • jenohdit says:

      I hope someone publishes plans for how to turn an old countertop into a box for my copy of the Book of Plates. That’s the lesson I’m taking away.

  17. jbgcr says:

    Lesson #1 – after 36 years it has become easy – large clientel and the work just keeps coming in – great employees and the work always gets done on time – the money comes in every day. But it’s retirement time – I’m into the last year.

    Lesson #2 – yes

    Lesson #3 – it’s business not pride – take the money, smile and move on to the next job. It’s about maing a good living for you and yours. It’s also about personal satisfaction of a job well done. But pride costs too much to allow it to be a business expense.

  18. #3 is, if your business is doing well (or if you are just an insufferable prick) you can permit yourself the luxury to be an asshole. Also, customers are wrong.

  19. Applying an early lesson my dad gave me about writing and public speaking (tell them what you’re going to say, say it, then tell them what you said) I’m going to guess the lesson was “Avoid that person.” I suppose it’s up to the individual to decide if they’d avoid the counter maker, the customers, or both.

  20. 61chrysler says:

    #3- I react the same way. I know what my product is and I know I have priced it very fairly. Each discount lessens the reputation of my work. A request for a discount after the price has been set is an insult to me and to fair business practices.

  21. Dave Roscoe says:

    re Lesson 3: I buy second hand books – many stores are ready to give a discount, but I respect those who don’t.
    I was in a store looking at one book – nice, but seemed a little high in price so I asked “is that your best price” – the store owner became very upset and impolite – I said OK and put it back – in putting it back I spotted one of the rarest editions in my field (worth thousands) priced at ten (UK pounds) – I immediately bought it. If the bookseller had been more polite I would have done what I often do in such a situation — bought it at the low price then told the seller and offered a good share of the value as a bonus (not always accepted). But no way for this guy (who probably could have done with the money).
    DR – Sheffield UK

  22. ctregan says:

    #3 Store owner loses sale and now has to pay disposal costs for cheesy counter. Lesson learned: get product out the door!

  23. Wesley Beal says:

    OK, different approach: is the cabinet maker still in business? Are we not meant to appreciate his position, but instead learn a lesson about how someone did not stay in business?

    You’re torturing us Chris! We must know the answer to lesson #3!

    • toolnut says:

      The guy in #3 didn’t know about #2.

      • Wesley Beal says:

        That would make sense to me. Not that I don’t admire the chutzpah of the shop owner in #3 – you’ve got to feel pretty secure about your position to take that approach to a closed invoice. Risky move.

    • I’m just a simple high school drop out, so I may be way off the mark…

      In #3, a quot for a custom counter top was given to the customer. The customer agreed to the price, and requested that the counter top be made.

      Once the counter top was made, the customer tried to leverage the time and money the craftsman had invested into the job to get a price that was lower than the AGREED upon price.

      Craftsman kicks scumbag customer out the door.

  24. John Lewis says:

    Very Nice. Well stated.

    Brighton Wood Shop

  25. bpdean says:

    Lesson from this post: Enigmatic statement from Chris = lots of comments.

    I keep coming back in hope that Chris caves in and spoon feeds what he sees as the lesson from #3. His shop, his rules? Don’t back out on an agreement? Value your work? Torture your customers and thy’ll keep coming back for more?

    • tsstahl says:

      “Custom-made Countertop”. Such things are quoted and agreed to in advance.

      Undermining the agreement at point of exchange is incredibly disrespectful and dismissive of the reasons you chose the particular shop for their expertise.

      Opinions vary on the reaction. Firing the customer is one route, but others believe educating the customer would be better.

      I negotiate all the time professionally and in my personal life. I ran a consultancy for 12 years and fired customers for various reasons, but always as nice as possible.

      I believe that you have to teach people how to be your customer. Ignorance is far more often free of malice than not–it has to be OK not to know something, right?

      One of the great things about free market competition is that you are free to present people with opportunities elsewhere when philosophies collide. 🙂

    • Tim Raleigh says:

      Agreed, I am doing the same. If Chris is gonna tell us what #3 it isn’t about, then I think he should tell us what it is.. at some point.
      I live in hope and eager anticipation!

      FWIW, I agree with points one and two. I don’t agree with the actions of the business owner in point three.

  26. snwoodwork says:

    Okay, since everyone and their mom is jumping on lesson three I’ll join in as well. Lesson two was to know when to keep your mouth shut, as relayed by Steve. Steve also told the story of the boisterous counter top maker. So if business is a fight and you need to learn how to shut up then the counter guy is gong to have to fight harder after not closing his trap. Like Michael says, “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.”

  27. One view is that the business is a 2-way street. The owner has the right not to sell his product to a customer.

    • Sean Hughto says:

      Yeah, my meditation on the Schwarz koan led me a similar place, Chuck: Never be so desperate that you have to put up with bnllsh1t; if you do good work and treat people fairly, you have the right to respect the same in return. I’ve sold a few things on eBay more cause I needed the space than the money. When buyers made it a hassle, I banned them from bidding on my stuff. I didn’t need the money so I was going to put up with it. Money isn’t any better than what it buys and arguably it’s worse cause there’s plenty of really good things it can’t buy.

  28. Who do you thinking you’re fighting?

  29. fitz says:

    You’re the best boss I’ve ever had…though I’ll likely never internalize Lesson No. 2. (Still trying!)

  30. paulobro says:

    Lesson you learn from a fact of life is not the same lesson learned by the guy just by your side at that same moment.
    One fact. Each witness has a different take, takes a different lesson.

    A fact can’t be right. Nor wrong. It’s just a fact.
    No lesson is right, or wrong — untill you make it so.

    Or, evidently, not.

  31. Custom countertop = agreed to price long before it was made. Anyone who tries to wheedle for a discount when taking delivery (AFTER it’s been made it to spec for agreed price) is going to be a nightmare to deal with at many many turns. I’d have said the same thing.

    Some of my brethren are best loved from afar.

    For some of us “Business” does NOT equate to putting up with anything in the name of profit.

  32. jleaycraft says:

    The value of a man(woman) is measured in their integrity. How do you value yourself and your work?
    The real measure of value is what you place on yourself and your product.

    Lost Art Press has made a decision to place a value on itself and products that reflects their vision of worth. We as consumers either accept their value statement and trade with them or we choose elsewhere.

    I have chosen to deal with Chris and John. They provide a product that represents to me above average quality and as a company and personally (Chris ) integrity and professionalism.

  33. Bill Palmer says:

    I understand the guy perfectly, I’ve just poured my heart and soul into the project, probably put more time and effort into it than what I was going to be payed. I’m giving the customer “a gift”, something he can cherish. I’m sensitive, slightly pissed(at myself)….WHAT? A DISCOUNT? I’d sooner eat it!

  34. Yeah. No. 3…..
    I generally ask people to step outside for a moment, then shut and lock the door. Its funnier that way.

  35. Well, my two cents worth is this; The last two hundred years of evolving free marketeering has obscured an essential human value I call ‘the good transaction’. If you work for yourself, you know only too well the struggle it is every day – that’s the price of your bit of freedom. Given that the world is split into two camps those who know the value of the “GT” and those who don’t, it is always a pleasure to deal with someone who respects your price and enjoys and supports your process.

    It is always a displeasure to deal with those who don’t. Thos who do, add an intangible yet vital currency to the exchange which is goodwill.

    And that is priceless.

  36. Treat all customers with equal respect and provide no special treatment is the lesson in #3.

  37. Frank Vucolo says:

    You and John have experience, quality and integrity on your side. Cudos on 7. I’m sure there are many more good years of fighting ahead of you.

    My business is approaching 19 years. I could not agree more with #1 & #2. Succinctly put, too; I’ve fallen asleep a hundred pages into best-selling business books without taking away as much.

    As for #3, I suppose there are several lessons to be taken. To me, it’s the fact that the countertop guy displayed bad behavior in front of a customer. And I don’t mean the guy picking up the order. Steve used this guy as one of his suppliers. Steve got intelligence that day that this guy can be a loose cannon and if you trip his switch, he will screw you. I’m guessing Steve stopped being a customer after that order – without a scene – because he needed reliable vendors so he could satisfy his own orders.

    Thanks for sharing this.


    • As a customer, if you don’t like the asking price of a product simply move on. If you think the content of anything published by LAP is not worth the cost then go read Fine Woodworking. I think you will find that is lesson #4. But beyond that, I’m just glad that I’m not the jackass(es) who prompted Chris to post this blog. You know who you are…don’t you?

    • durbien says:

      Lesson #3: Always get purchase agreement in writing for custom order, including consequences of breaking the contract (from either side) and non-refundable deposit.

      Any other lesson is putting values over business, which while admirable, is a good way to go out of business.

  38. misterlinn says:

    Lesson 1. There is no such thing as democracy. If there was, there’d be no poor or hungry.
    Lesson 2. You’re first gut reaction is usually emotion based and therefore not logical.
    Lesson 3. I’ve never asked for a discount because I find that abhorrent. Ergo, I’ve never paid too much for anything, ever.

  39. No.3. They could and did ask for discount but then agreed to pay full price after the response. It’s time to then accept payment and move on. Best to avoid storms in teacups and keep things in perspective.

  40. paul6000000 says:

    #3- once you run your own business, you have the freedom to decide who you want to deal with. If you like, you can tell people to go f*ck themselves. It may come back to bite you in the ass and your family may starve but you have that freedom.

  41. Marilyn says:

    Good thoughts! Never insult someone’s work by asking them to cut their price that you’ve already agreed to. He deserved to be thrown off the site. Geez!

    I’ve had stuff made for me (e.g. Bill Ritter’s handplane totes, Bad Axe saws, Hamilton Tools, as well as many others). When I’ve received them, I’ve thought .. geez, I should have paid more for that .. they’re beautiful and so incredibly made, I can’t imagine asking for a discount.

  42. stradlad68 says:

    Christopher–this is my first comment; it’s, about Wisdom From the Boss not History of Wood.

    RE: #2–I worked for Uncle Sam for years and had a boss who was almost the exact opposite of #2. He once lambasted a man for wearing jeans to the office; he belatedly remembered it was “Casual Friday” and jeans were acceptable. I think he never apologized. He only reinforced my approach of “make haste slowly”.

    RE: #3–The customer did not respect the labor and skill that were needed to produce the counter top. My wife is a custom clothier with years of experience and training. She gets a similar request, usually up front, most of the time. Infuriating that people refuse to understand not only the skill but also the passion that an artisan puts into his or her work. Thanks for the insight.

  43. Two lesssons from number3
    1) Dont ask Lost Art Press for discounts. They charge a fair price for an excellent product.
    2) You insult the craftsman when you ask them to discount their work, especially after agreein on a price.

    When I had my business, the price was the price. No haggling. That is a slippery slope that never ends well. Our products were excellent, and easily outlasted cheaper, more mass produced stuff. Same with our contracts, and cabling. Pretty much once we had a customer, they were a long term customer.

  44. k says:

    I think, quite simply, that lesson number three speaks to the saying “give someone and inch and they’ll take a yard.” Once people realize they can get something out of you for cheap at your expense, you have lost your power in the transaction. The reaction in the lesson is perhaps embellished and over the top but reinforces the makers end of the contract and their power to rescind their services- just as the customer has the power to demand them. Not necessarily the most strategic move but probably, in this case, one that comes from previous experience with bad customers. More than just an example of someone being grumpy or having bad business sense.

    • Frank Vucolo says:

      The maker actually broke the contract when he refused to deliver the goods to the customer who agreed (after behaving like an ass) to pay the contracted price.

  45. Agnesa Agani says:

    I know exactly how I would feel. Insulted by the buyer. He has so little respect for my work that he wants a discount? If I did sell it at full price, he would probably always be thinking how he overpaid instead of appreciating my work.


  46. My take on No. 3 is the bussiness owner and customer agreed on a price upfront, the owner failed to take any payment upfront and so left himself open to the customers attempt at a discount. It’s not the haggling that’s the issue, it’s the bussiness owner putting himself at the mercy of the customer. I require 50% upfront and then full payment before I deliver. I haven’t read the other comments all the way through…

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