Take My Advice, I’m Not Using It

Three TablesDuring my final year of teaching, I had three distressing encounters with teenagers in my classes and lectures. At the end of the event, the teens came up and said: “I want to be you when I grow up.” And then they asked a terrifying question: “How do I get to where you are?”

I hate to give advice. But I also hate to be a jerk. And so I gave some after-school-special answer about working hard and never listening to adults.

The honest answer is: Become a hedge fund manager for five years, make more money than I will in a lifetime and “retire” to building furniture for clients and writing about woodworking.

As we don’t need more hedge fund managers, here is a list of things I have done right in my career (the list of things I’ve done wrong would fill a book and require multiple therapy sessions).

  1. Keep your day job. Don’t quit your real job until you have paid off all your debts (I paid off my mortgage when I was 39) and have purchased all the equipment you need to get started. Build your business while you are working for the man. Yes, this requires multi-vitamins or amphetamines. I chose vitamins.
  2. Reject all overhead. Don’t hire employees, buy/rent/lease a building or add any overhead until these things seem like pocket change. Even though I can afford an employee (or five), it’s better to keep a business small and flexible. Plus, you didn’t really quit your job to become a middle manager at your own business, did you?
  3. Embrace the Internet. If you aren’t happy to share your struggle on Instagram, Twitter, SnapChat, blogs, forums and usenet (they’re FREE), I think you are fighting without using your fists. These tools allow you to compete with huge businesses. All it takes is being clever and determined.
  4. Make friends. You cannot do this alone. Take other makers out to lunch and figure out how their businesses work. Because I have a network of woodworkers here in Northern Kentucky, I could live off referrals if I needed to (not that I really want to make 600 shutters for the county courthouse). Friends will keep you fed. And you should return that favor for other makers.
  5. Don’t do one thing. Make sure you have multiple income sources. I make money from writing, building furniture and publishing other people’s books. All of those hands wash each other. When one goes to pot, the other one can make up the difference.
  6. Live someplace cheap. This is huge. The Cincinnati area is dirt cheap but densely populated. That’s perfect for what I do. I have the infrastructure I need (gigabit Internet, lumberyards, transportation, other makers) and access to the rest of the world, thanks to the Internet.
  7. Do it all yourself. Learn photography, website design, copywriting, CAD, QuickBooks and whatever else it takes to make your business work. Yes, you might hire others to do some of this stuff (someday), but you should be good enough at all these things that you can tell when you are getting cheated or are working with a slug.
  8. Keep your day job. If all the above points sound exhausting, then maybe your day job isn’t so bad.

One more point: I’d do exactly what I am doing even if there were no money in it. I’d do it if no one read it. I’d do it if no one bought it. Seriously, I can’t not do it. I am obsessed and crazy (ask Lucy). And that, more than anything, is why we didn’t eat ramen tonight.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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29 Responses to Take My Advice, I’m Not Using It

  1. hgordon4 says:

    As a CPA who has owned his own firm for over 20 years, I can say that is all great advice. Some specifics vary by industry, but of course Chris is speaking to what he does for a living. And his principles are sound.
    I will say that if your opportunity presents itself before you are financially ready (it did for me), make sure if you take on debt that you have the stomach for it, and the skill to manipulate cash flow. Otherwise, wait. And do it the way Chris says.

  2. Salko Safic says:

    You and I are not much different, your advice are my thoughts and practice but where we become twins is our obsession for the craft.

  3. Sound advice for entering into any venture. Some of us had to learn the hard way. Follow Chris’ line of thought and action.

  4. I would add that if you have a spouse or significant other make sure they not only support your path, but fully understand and encourage it. If they don’t, failure of some sort is likely.

  5. Chris Decker says:

    Noted, and Noted. Does this mean I should take you out to lunch, Chris? Or offer space in my minivan to take cardboard tubes to Handworks?

  6. martin says:

    I would add step 0: Find a partner. This can be your spouse, but have someone in your corner that wants the enterprise to succeed as much as you do. Starting a business is hard and there will be an incredible number of ups and downs. Find someone whose skills complement your own and who is willing do go along with all these other steps. Make sure you trust this person with your bank account and you’ll get each other though all the hard parts.

  7. I find this on the whole rather sad and a very negaitive way to look at life and buisness . It is perfectly possible to have a good business making and selling things by taking the plunge and building things up slowly . Having a little debt to make things happen is not offence but you must be in control.

    • Derek Long says:

      Cash flow is king. I’m also in a business where receipts take months (sometimes years) to pay out. Debt, on the other hand, always comes knocking the same day of every month.

  8. josef1henri says:

    I was so glad to hear you say do it all yourself. So many people say, “oh, you must have professionals do your photography and website and ad copy”. The trouble is, that adds to overhead and the plain fact is that I can make my photos, website, and ad copy look the way I (with a great big capital I) want it to.

  9. toolnut says:

    If you ever want to branch out with your writing, a book about your failures, along with your successes, could be a good read. It would be more of a book for entrepreneurs (from the perspective of a journalist,woodworker/publisher/toolmaker/teacher.). Do it right and it might appeal to anyone wanting to start a business. Look at the three teenagers, they didn’t want to be you exactly, just be where you were with their own business. I’m not saying to make it an advice book, just tell your story in your own humorous way. Let people take from it what they will. I would bet you have some pretty good stories to tell about your path that would be very instructive to anyone wanting to take the plunge. Just a thought.

  10. Jeff Hanna says:

    Another point about day jobs: if LAP and traditional woodworking is your style, the industry isn’t for you. I went to a 2 year school to become a cabinetmaker and found out real quick that I don’t “fit in” to the woodworking industry. If you’re looking for professional experience building high quality furniture by hand, better find someone who is working alone (all the talented furniture makers I know are self-employed…and broke).

  11. Farmer Greg says:

    This isn’t a bad way to run a farm, either.

  12. Mark Fisher says:

    Good advice for a lot of things. I’m building a business around product development mostly for start ups. I am adding a step by going to part time with my day job first. It takes time to learn all the bits of running a business and getting clients. Also, learning accounting software, website building, etc. sounds very intimidating, but it isn’t that hard…..and most people have friends who have already done it.

  13. jaredtohlen says:

    *”Disobey me” might still apply. Or it might not. Good luck.

  14. Noel says:

    I’ve often told people that if you’re not doing whatever it is you’re dreaming of (writing, woodworking, sewing, music, whatever) when you don’t have all the time to do it (i.e. working your day job), then once you get the time, you probably won’t do it then, either. The “I can’t not do it” has been them most important part in any of my assorted passions in life.

  15. Rachael Boyd says:

    Love the title, took me reading it a couple time to see it…

  16. tsstahl says:

    The real ‘find’ here is that there are teenagers looking to become makers! 🙂

    • I’ve said it many times: There is no lack of young people who want to make things. There is only the lack of a path for them to take (other than making your own path).

  17. charlie says:

    These young lads will need a Le Labourer work jacket, if they want to be like their instructor.

  18. Lee B says:

    For myself, it was a relief when I realized I wasn’t going to try to make a living with woodworking. I just want to make nice things and not add to the procession of sad, sagging solutions to modern living half thrown in the dumpster every time someone moves out of my building.

  19. texasbelliott says:

    There is tremendous wisdom to be mined not only from Chris’ post, but from the comments as well. This is all so helpful and I thank everyone for their insight.

    Keep it up, Chris. Continue to be you!

  20. I guess I’m doing it right. Too bad I’ll be 87 before I make it though.

  21. Kevin Thomas says:

    I find this to be good advice, even for an old fart , like me.

  22. durbien says:

    But… Ramen is tasty. I don’t think you’re eating the right ramen.

  23. Good advice, I tell people you don’t get into woodworking for the money. Of course I’m not a good woodworker like you but I try and I love it.

  24. John Carter says:

    Love this post. For me, going out on my own hasn’t happened yet, but I’ve got all of the equipment ready. I’m waiting on that final push, the one where I just can’t not be self employed anymore. Looking forward to meeting Lost Art Press at Handworks!

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