Entrepreneur Philosophy: Give Time, Talent, and Treasure to the Community

entrepreneurs should give
What Can You Give?

Before we launched Traughber Design, I put a lot of thought into what kind of company I wanted.  I wanted a company that gave back to our clients via high quality craftsmanship, but also wanted some of the profits to flow to its employees (currently an Army of One) as well as the community.  I wanted that entrepeneur philosophy to be embedded in the company DNA from the very beginning.  The first 2 years of operation we invested heavily in tools and ran at a loss which I had fully expected, but here in year #3 we are going to turn a profit and it’s time to put our money where our mouth is and execute the vision we had at the beginning.  So this year we are going to invest a portion of our profits in the local community.  A percentage of the proceeds from our first commission has been set aside to sponsor a sports team at the local high school.  As future commissions roll in, we will disburse that same percentage of our revenue to other causes.

We all have time, talent and treasure.  Some of us have more time than money, while others have more money than time.  If you are an aspiring entrepreneur, have you thought about giving your time, talent, and treasure directly in your community, if you are not already?  For example, in our local church we have a ministry called Helping Hands of Grace where we serve dinner to the homeless on Friday nights during the winter when the need is greatest.  Several other churches sponsor different nights of the week.  What we are finding is that those service nights at our church get signed up for very quickly by the various small groups in our church.  People want to help their fellow man and are being intentional about serving on those Friday nights.  Events like those are a great opportunity to give your time to others.  If you would like to serve by giving your time, consider contacting your local homeless shelter, soup kitchen, or church for opportunities.

Earlier, we wrote a post about John Rockefeller and his keys to success.  One of the things we didn’t write as much about in that post, was his struggle after he become very wealthy to find his way in philanthropy.  Setting up a foundation to distribute wealth was a new thing back then and he had to basically invent the model which is used today by some of the large foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Rockefeller established the Rockefeller Foundation, but had a difficult time deciding how it should be run, who should get the funds, and how to ensure the receiving organizations had a sustainable model.  One of the first large efforts he started was establishing the University of Chicago, but he fought with the leadership because they weren’t broadening their donor base and weren’t (Rockefeller felt) being frugal.  Rockefeller didn’t want the receiving organizations to be solely dependent on his foundation.  Of course, when he was a young man he didn’t know he would have this “problem” of distributing extraordinary wealth, but now that we have his example and the example of others, we can incorporate this thinking about giving early on when we craft our entrepreneur philosophy.

It is up to each person to consider what is appropriate for them.  To whom much is given, much is required.  If you’ve launched an entrepreneurial venture, have you thought about who your stakeholders are and who should benefit if your venture is successful?  Should it be solely you?  Your employees?  The community?  All of the above?  In what proportion?

I think some of the most important questions a founder can ask themselves are:

“Why am I starting this enterprise?”
“Who are the stakeholders?”
“How can I support them?”

In addition to philanthropy, an entrepreneur should give back to its employees.  I did another of our entrepeneur interviews last week (we’ll be publishing that interview soon), this time with the owner of Better Display Cases, John Johnson.  He is giving back to another group of stakeholders, his employees.  Here is a veteran who just retired, started his own company and already has two employees and is looking for a third.  Business is booming and he is giving back to the community by providing good jobs here in Northern Virginia.  BTW, if you’re looking for work, contact him at his website here.

Another great example of giving back to employees is Dan Price, the CEO of Gravity Payments.  Dan is a very thoughtful guy and was troubled by the stories from his employees of struggling to get by in a high cost city.  He was making over $1 million per year and thought it was unfair that he had it so good, while his employees were struggling.  He decided to set a “minimum wage” of a $70,000 annual salary for every employee including himself (you can read all about it here in Inc. Magazine).  The reason he picked $70,000 is that studies have shown $70,000 will meet most families’ needs and your marginal happiness does not increase much above $70,000 no matter how much you make.  As you can imagine, his employees were shocked and overjoyed.  They were so ecstatic that they bought him a new Tesla last year which you can read about here.

My point is, in both Johnson’s and Price’s cases they have thoughtfully considered who the stakeholders are in their enterprises.

So we’ve discussed giving of time, talent, and treasure to two groups of stakeholders, the community and employees, but not much about the third, yourself.  This goes back to that earlier question of why you’re starting the enterprise.  Are you seeking a certain level of income?  Self-fulfillment?  Something else?  In my opinion, if you take care of your clients, employees, and community, your needs will be taken care of organically.  Those stakeholders will support you, if you support them.

These philosophy discussions are best had before launching the venture or early in its development, because once it’s launched you are going to be unbelievably busy as I saw at Better Display Cases this week.  John and is two employees are really hustling to fulfill orders and have boxes stacked from floor to ceiling in the entire building.  They receive large shipping containers from China monthly and race to unload the containers and deliver their products to all their customers.  John’s time to have these philosophical discussions now is extremely limited.

Along those lines, seek out mentors who are farther along the entrepreneurial path who can share what they’ve done.  It may not be exactly the correct path for you, but will help clarify your thinking (check out our blog post here on Stoic philosophy for more on clarity).

Time to get back to the shop and work on that black walnut gun cabinet commission, so we can give back more ; )

How to Use Stoic Philosophy for Lifestyle Design and Entrepreneurship

Stoic Philosopher Epictetus
Stoic Philosopher Epictetus (picture courtesy of Wikipedia)

Several years ago when I was going through a military course, we had a reading about Admiral James Stockade, who won the Medal of Honor for his actions during 8 years as a Prisoner of War during Vietnam.  In the article, Stockdale was describing the mission where he was shot down over North Vietnam and talked about how he was flying along at hundreds of miles an hour, had to eject, and realized he was suddenly entering the world of Epictetus.  I had never heard of Epictetus and thought how significant it must be that in that moment, of all the things that might have been going through his head, Stockdale was thinking of someone named Epictetus.  Intrigued, I started to do a little research and found that Epictetus was a Greek philosopher who belonged to a school of philosophy called Stoicism.  I wanted to learn more and during one of my business trips, found a copy of Epictetus’ Discourses in a used bookstore.  The Discourses are lectures written down by one of Epictetus’ students.  I don’t agree with everything in the Discourses, but there are some useful concepts for designing our lives, entrepreneurs and woodworkers in Stoicism.  We can learn much from studying philosophers.  As Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living”.  We can get so caught up in the tactical details of life that sometimes we don’t step back to ask the question of whether what we are doing is even important.  Shouldn’t we be continually asking that question?

That being said, Stoicism seems to be enjoying a resurgence these days.  Some of the more popular Stoics are Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius.  Epictetus was born a slave, taught philosophy in Rome, then was exiled to Greece.  Seneca was a Roman Stoic philosopher and advisor to the Emperor.  Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor who wrote the Meditations on Stoic philosophy.  It’s important, though, when someone declares “Stoicism says” that you take that with a grain of salt.  Each of the Stoics has a slightly different take on things.  If you’d like to read more, I highly recommend The Daily Stoic.

There are three principles of Stoicism that I think are very relevant to lifestyle design, entrepreneurship, and woodworking.

Clarify our perceptions

Many times what we perceive is going on is not what is really going on.  For entrepreneurs it’s especially important to think about what data you need to gather to tell you if you are on track to your vision.  Sometimes entrepreneurs analyze the data that’s readily available, rather than what’s important.  The important data may be difficult to get, but is not usually impossible to develop.  If someone asks you “how is your business doing?” how do you you know rather than just saying “fine”?  For example, if you are writing a blog it’s important to install at least a couple plugins that gather metrics to let you know how you are doing.  The blogger needs to look at the data to find out what ground truth is.  They tell you exactly how many users there are every day, where they are coming from, what they are looking at, etc.  For example, if someone asks me how the blog is doing, I’ve got the data and it’s clear this blog is growing.  This month’s traffic is on track to be double last month’s.  In addition, we can see that the hits from search engines are increasing, which means the search engines are finding us or we’re writing about things that more people are interested in, or just having more published posts is drawing more search.  We’ve made mistakes with the blog such as running into a photograph interface issue between WordPress and Facebook, but it’s clear we are on the right path.  We wouldn’t know that if we hadn’t decided which data to collect to clarify our perceptions.

Another aspect of clarifying our perceptions is to control our thoughts, which is especially important for entrepreneurs.  I think over the past 2 years, I’ve gotten much better at banishing negative thoughts about what could go wrong.  This is a skill any small business owner can exercise and develop.  For example, I noticed that most of the time these thoughts are late at night before I’m going to bed or in the middle of the night.  Knowing that, if one of these thoughts rears its ugly head, I can say to myself “oh, it’s late and I’m just tired” and let the negative thought go.

As the famous French philosopher Montaigne said “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened” (see brainy quote.com.  Why dwell on something if it will probably never happen?

Act reasonably and wisely

In an earlier post, I wrote about failing fast and cheap which aligns with acting reasonably as the Stoics recommend.  An entrepeneur probably shouldn’t do an experiment that would bankrupt the company, but should instead place small well-thought-out bets.  For example, many entrepreneurs following a strategy of doing A/B experiments.  This means “A” is the current method and “B” is an experiment trying something new.  If “B” is successful, you switch to that method even if it’s only an incremental gain.  If “B” wasn’t successful, you default back to “A” then dream up some more A/B experiments.  Over time, these incremental gains of the “B”s that worked will add up to big gains.  It’s important to not agonize over “failed” experiments, but to consider that you learned something in the process.  Make sure you know how much you want to pay for those failed experiments ahead of time to cap your risk.

The third Stoic principle is related to the second.

Know what is in our control and what is not

This is one of the most fundamental Stoic principles.  Epictetus says at the most basic level, all we can really control is our will.  That’s why Stockdale referenced Epictetus when he was shot down.  He realized that if he was captured, he would be in a test of wills with his captors, which he was…for 8 years.

This relates to entrepreneurship as well, especially blogging.  One of the most successful bloggers right now is Maria Popova who has 5 million readers per month and writes a blog called Brain Pickings.  I’ve listened to interviews with her and done some reading of her blog and she shares some terrific points on successful blogging.  One thing she emphasizes is to write for yourself.  This is within our control as the Stoics would advise.  Popova’s point is that we shouldn’t chase an audience.  We won’t be interesting if we try to write what we think most people will like, rather than what we are really passionate about.  In addition, we’ll likely lose interest if we are constantly writing about what we think others want to read rather than what really interests us.  Readers can tell if a blogger is passionate about something.

This also relates to woodworking in that woodworkers should focus on the task as hand; it’s in our control.  We can control the level of craftsmanship in our project as we’ve written about previously in the post on the Soviet gulag and the post on glue, but have limited ability to control external factors.

It’s important to be present when we create which is something I have not mastered, but am always striving for.

 

The Wonderful Crazy Life of an Entrepreneur’s Spouse

an entrepreneur's spouse
An Entrepreneur’s Spouse

Entrepreneurship is a team sport.  This is our first interview with Mrs Woodworker, which may give you some insights and recommendations for dealing with your entrepreneur spouse.  Entrepreneurship is a wild ride and both spouses need to be on board.  Read on!

 

What is it like leading the crazy life of an entrepreneur’s spouse?

It is maybe not always crazy. I guess to balance out the entrepreneur’s craziness you have to be patient and you also have to ignore some of the craziness of the entrepreneur.

Like what kind of craziness?

Well, sometimes the entrepreneur wants to tell you all of their ideas and you just kind of nod and smile and you kind of ignore some of that unless it involves your time or space or things.  Some of the other craziness you have to help harness and say that idea is maybe a little bit much, I don’t think we can do that right now.  You might have to do that idea in the future

That all sounds pretty negative; is their anything positive about it?

Well, yes, there are a lot of positives.  It’s nice to have someone who is so  creative, and who wants to make things better.  There are not that many people who want to do that.  And not that many people who then take action to change things.  With an entrepreneur’s spouse, you on the other end of it, would go ahead and do things that you never thought that you would do.

I suppose it’s a little bit like jumping off a cliff.  In our case we have a salary so we don’t have to worry about starving, but still I suppose it could be a little bit scary.  What do you think?

It’s very scary, and the bigger the risk or the bigger the cliff, the bigger the chance for success, but also the bigger the chance of failure.   I think you have been very modest in what you are willing to spend before you see some results.  I have read some things from about other entrepreneurs’ spouses where they have mortgaged their house twice.  They were knee deep in debt right before they hit it big.

So you’re saying the Festool was a good investment?

(laughing)  The Festool (see our post on that one) was a hard investment for me, but I guess I could live with it because you found the money for itwithin our budget.  You found some extra money to pay for it.  It didn’t affect our lifestyle.

The deployment bonus came in handy.

Yes.  But at the same time, (laughing) I have to rein you in so you don’t go too crazy.  It’s kind of like our old rule about how you were not allowed to shop at REI by yourself.

Alright, that’s pretty enlightening.  What tips do you have for other spouses?

One, you have to be a bit of a parachute.  You have to let your entrepreneur take some risks, but not go so crazy that he’s jumping off the cliff without a parachute.   I think you have to remain calm and realize that an entrepreneur has to go through many ideas before they find one that strikes it rich.  You have to be encouraging.  I’ve found that I’m a sounding board even though I don’t know anything about woodworking.  I’m often get asked questions sometimes more broad sometimes more specific about woodworking and somehow I can come up with some Yoda-type answer that seems to work (see our post on Mrs Woodworker’s Yoda-type wisdom).

Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Yes, just as an entrepreneur’s spouse you should be encouraging.  You have to be steadfast, and not get all crazy that this is going to take over your life.  I think sometimes you can set limits, too.  You’ll have projects or want to take on more things, even outside of woodworking. I’ll say you really need to think about that.  We need time for this for our family or we need to schedule time for this house project.  Not all entrepreneurs are good at balancing their family responsibilities with their entrepreneurial goals.  I think as a spouse you have to rein that in, but you have to do that carefully so you don’t totally squelch the spirit.

OK.  Thanks!

Entrepreneurship and Woodworking Require a Community

military challenge coin display black walnut
Military Challenge Coin Display in Black Walnut

I was messing around in the wood shop over the holidays and created the military challenge coin display shown in the picture with a piece of scrap black walnut.  During the process, I was thinking how many people are necessary to pursue a creative endeavor like this (woodworking) and what a terrific community we have.  Some people may have the mistaken impression that woodworking consists of toiling away solo in a wood shop, but nothing could be farther from the truth.  There is a large network of people who are generous in sharing their wisdom and help make that woodworker or entrepreneur successful.  One way to frame it is by considering three groups:  artisans, enablers, and clients.

Artisans

The Traughber Tribe recently went to Canaan Valley WV for our annual cross country ski vacation.  This year we went over Christmas and planned to open some of our gifts there.  As a gift, my daughter gave me an allowance to spend in the resort gift shop.  Since we enjoy candlelight dinners, I thought I’d buy a locally made candle.  But then I got to thinking…for the price I’d pay for the candle in the gift shop, I could get two or three times as much candle at a discount store back home.  I tossed the idea out to our daughter and she said “Dad, is that even a question?”  Her meaning was, how could I NOT buy the candle from the local artisan, which is what we did.

I receive so much inspiration from my fellow makers.  On a recent business trip, after hours a colleague and I went on a photo shoot since he’s big into photography.  We were in San Francisco and he knew a particular location where he wanted to take the perfect photo of the Golden Gate Bridge.  We spent hours taking photos in different locations, with different lighting, with different camera settings.  I know nothing about photography, but it was inspirational to see another craftsman spending so much time to create something beautiful.  We’ll have a post soon covering an interview with the photographer and you’ll see the results from the photo shoot.

Fellow artisans are also terrific mentors.  They don’t necessarily even need to be skilled in your particular craft.  For example, the author (Lawrence Colby author of The Devil Dragon Pilot) we interviewed recently and I chat often about blog ideas, writing and our craft.  In almost every conversation he gives me some pearl of wisdom that helps me in Traughber Design.  Fellow craftsmen are great for helping keep things in alignment with the business’ vision and goals as we wrote about in our post on glue technique.

Lastly, craftsmen provide fellowship.  Recently we spent Christmas with my pal Steve’s family; Steve is also a Festool fanatic (see our post about Festool here).  He gets it.  He fully understands why someone would spend an exorbitant amount on a power tool and think of it as value.  Hanging out with like-minded people is part of the great fun of being an entrepreneur and craftsman.

Enablers

Woodworkers could not do what they do without hardwood dealers, specialty suppliers, and tool experts.  I was up at Colonial Hardwoods recently to buy some wood for our windowsill commission, and the dealer pointed out some wonderful white oak they had recently received.  We took a look and I ended up buying some and using it in a recent commission.  Where else would a salesperson consider what you are making and make suggestions beyond what you said you came to buy? And where else would they let you wander around the warehouse and pick the pieces you like?  Our community is so giving.

Gun Cabinet in Black Walnut

Another key enabler is the specialty supplier.  In my case, one of these consists of glass suppliers.  Del Ray Glass was a company I used for the black walnut gun cabinet (pictured).  I don’t know much about glass (in addition to photography), but they walked me through thicknesses, types of glass, frostings available, etc. and delivered on time and at a fair price.  They are on my short list the next time I need some glass.

Last there are the tool guys.  It would have been very difficult to learn Festool so quickly without Brian Graham’s tutelage at the Festool Ubershop on Baltimore.  He set up the equipment before I arrived, gave a demo, I played around with it, then we boxed it up to take home.  It’s so much easier to learn a tool hands-on like that.

Clients

military challenge coin display in black walnut
Military Challenge Coin Display in Black Walnut – Angle View

One of the great things I love about our clients is they reveal the art of the possible.  When a client asks “can you build that?” I almost always say yes.  I’ve usually got a general idea to begin with, but sometimes get to experiment in the shop with alternate ways of making something.  For example, with the military challenge coin holder I could have cut the slots from the bottom with the router table.  I also could have cut them from the top using a rail guide and the router.  I could have also used a jig.  That’s part of the fun in creating is experimenting and mulling over what works best.

Our client network continues to grow.  A client may have a piece in their home, then other people see it and word gets around.  Most of our business so far has been from referrals.  For example, a kitchen cabinet panel commission came about from a Facebook conversation (see our post: How to Make a Kitchen Cabinet Door:  Flat Panel Construction).  I love the serendipity of where our projects come from.

Speaking of clients, I’m currently reading a book for my day job called The Industries of the Future by Alec Ross.  Ross is analyzing which industries will be replaced by robots.  One of the beauties of the artisanal movement is our works are not likely to be outsourced.  Sure, you can buy mass-produced furniture from overseas, but that’s not the market we’re in.  We do custom woodworking which doesn’t lend itself to outsourcing.  Our local clients are buying from us, not some company overseas.

We’re very fortunate to have such a great woodworking and entrepreneurial community and look forward to spending time with that community in the new year.

Reflections on 2016…Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Traughber Design!

black walnut key ring rack
Key Ring Rack in Black Walnut

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of our clients, friends, and family.  Traughber Design just delivered its last commission of 2016 (see picture at left) on Friday, and we thought this was a good time to thank our community of supporters and reflect on the past year.

This was our second full year of operation and the business continues to build.  We delivered 8 commissions this year with a wide variety of projects and have 1 piece in progress in the shop.

One of the most exciting things this year was the launch of the new and improved website and blog.  SiteGround’s servers will give us a lot more space and room to grow than our previous website.  There was a little bit of a learning curve with our blogging software, WordPress, but the functionality is much greater than we had with the last website and we’re much more comfortable now with using WP.  Traffic continues to build and we had over 350 unique visitors in the past 4 months (the blog went live in September with post #1) and 1,500 page views.  The metrics show our users are spending more and more time on the site, which probably makes sense given we’ve published almost 30 posts now and have more content.

key ring rack in black walnut
Key Ring Rack in Black Walnut

We’ve been very blessed with not only commissions from clients, but also just words of encouragement.  If you can, support your local artisans in 2017.  If you know of someone trying to get their enterprise off the ground, consider throwing some business their way.  Every sale can be critical in those first few months or years of operation.  We will continue to do our part by sharing the exciting stories of other up and coming makers, and have three more interviews in the queue for early 2017.

The future looks bright and we are talking to multiple clients about potential commissions for 2017 including another black walnut gun cabinet which will keep the wood shop humming.  Our last one took approximately 100 hours to make, so we are very interested to see how long the next one will take.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone!

Lessons Learned from John D. Rockefeller on Life, Entrepreneurship, and Woodworking

John D. Rockefeller
John D. Rockefeller

Want to learn some great tips from the richest man in the world?  Being rich is not the be all and end all, but Rockefeller did build an amazing business empire.  I’m wrapping up a terrific biography about John D. Rockefeller which is an absolute beast of a book by Ron Chernow called Titan, The Life of John D. Rockeffeler, Sr. It’s so long, it runs on 30 audio CDs, but is well worth the listen (or read).  Rockefeller has many lessons for woodworkers and entrepreneurs as we’ll share below.

Power of Positive Thinking

One of the most famous stories about Rockefeller centers around his job search when he was a young man. When Rockefeller was 15 years old he spent 6 weeks looking for his first job as an assistant bookkeeper.  He put on his suit every morning and walked the streets of Cleveland from one firm to another starting at 0800 every day until late afternoon.  Once he exhausted his list of prospective firms he then started over again.  Finally, after 6 weeks a commodities firm hired him.  Rockefeller celebrated September 26th every year as “Job Day” because it was so important to him.  He celebrated Job Day even more than his birthday.  Rockefeller’s attitude was that he would not be denied.  He was going to get up every day and get that job, no matter what.

Another positive thinker is a woodworker named Ben Riddering.  Watch this video to see Riddering’s positive attitude about woodworking and his life:

There’s a man who knew what kind of life he wanted and built it.  If you want even more of a Festool fix, check out our blog post here on tools.

Work ethic

When Rockefeller was a young man, he attended a Baptist mission church in Cleveland.  He didn’t just attend, he did every odd job around the church such as sweeping the floors, doing maintenance, and teaching Sunday school.  He was well known in that church for always being there and always doing whatever was needed.  That work ethic carried over into his business career.  He was tireless in building first his commodities business, then oil refining business, then adding railroads to his portfolio, then pipelines, etc.  He continued to work hard to a very old age for that time (late 1800s, early 1900s)

Sam Maloof Rocker 1994
Sam Maloof Rocker 1994

Another great example of work ethic is a famous woodworker named Sam Maloof.  The New York Times said he was “a central figure in the postwar American crafts movement”.  In addition, Maloof won a MacArthur “Genius” grant for his excellent in craftsmanship.  One of the things that makes Maloof stand out is his work ethic.  He served in the Army during World War II, then set up his first shop shortly thereafter in California.  He continued to turn out works of incredible beauty almost to his death in 2009, over 50 years of woodworking!  What a great example for us all.

For more on work ethic, check out our blog post on entrepreneurship and grit.

Think outside the box

Rockefeller started out in the commodities business buying and selling goods in the Midwest and arranging shipments over the roads, railroads, and Great Lakes.  When oil was discovered in Western Pennsylvania, people didn’t quite know what to make of it or how valuable it would be. Rockefeller took a gamble and bought a refinery nearby, when many of his contemporaries stayed in the commodities business.  Rockefeller thought outside the box and started buying up more and more refinery capacity even though there was not a huge market for oil (yet) or oil-based products.

Going back to the Maloof example, look at that picture of the rocking chair above.  For its time, it was revolutionary.  The unusual curves set it apart from the furniture of its day.  In addition, creating a piece of furniture like that that is manufacturable in quantity can be very difficult, but Maloof was able to design it such that it was a profitable enterprise.  That is out of the box thinking.

Getting back to John D. and his accomplishment, a little positive thinking, work ethic, and thinking outside the box can take us a long way to achieving our goals.

 

Having a Mental Block with a Thorny Woodworking or Start-Up Problem? Get on the Bike!

mountain bike maintenance
The Happy Machine Getting Some TLC

One of the hazards of being a maker is hitting the occasional mental block.  These blocks can strike woodworkers and entrepreneurs alike as we discussed in our earlier post about Clauzewitzian fog and friction.  Should we throw up our hands in despair and gnash our teeth?  Absolutely not!  There are tried and true methods to power through mental blocks and one sure fire cure is a bicycle ride.  You may be thinking “what on earth is he talking about?”  But think back to when you were a kid.  What were your memories of riding a bicycle?  Most likely it was a terrific sense of speed racing down hills.  Or the feel of the wind in your hair.  Or having an incredible feeling of freedom as you expanded how far you could ride away from home.  Does anyone ever have bad memories of riding a bike as a child?  So why don’t we ride more as adults?  Good question.  We should ride more because it’s a great cure for what ails us in the wood shop or as an entrepreneur.

I started out calling my bike “Gary” because it was a Gary Fisher mountain bike.  When I told Mrs Woodworker I was going for a ride I’d say “Gary and I are going for a ride.  See you in an hour!”.  Now I call it The Happy Machine because I’m almost always happy after a long bike ride.  It must be the endorphins (or the speed, or the wind through the hair, or riding far from home).  The Happy Machine is almost guaranteed to increase joy and help solve problems.

I’m finding whatever thorny problem I’m facing in the wood shop or as an entrepreneur is usually solved on a bike ride.  And I’m not the only one.  Brent Bellm was the head of Paypal Europe for 4 years and is currently CEO of a company called Bigcommerce.  Here is what he had to say about the magical quality of bicycle problem solving in the Apr 2016 issue of Inc Magazine:  “Every autumn, he ramps up of the Texas State Road Race cycling championship.  Las year, he finished fifth overall and third in his age group.  But to him, bike riding is more than mere competition.  ‘If there’s a problem at work or in my personal life, or an issue that needs to be resolved, that’s what my mind gravitates to.’ Bellm says. ‘It will work it through until it’s done.’ ”

One of the dilemmas we were facing in Traughber Design recently was improving the way we cut curves into our pieces.  It sounds easy, but in practice is not quite so straightforward.  I hopped on the bike and thought through some of the courses of action.  One thought was to just freehand the curves.  Another was to buy some french curves, but then you are limited to the size of curve you have purchased.  Another was to make something called a fairing stick.  The ride clarified that I should experiment with the fairing stick and see how it worked out.  It worked great!

Some of the most successful Americans in our history used cycling to recuperate and recharge their physical and mental batteries.  In Ron Chernow’s biography of John D. Rockefeller, he writes how Rockefeller’s doctors ordered him to rest in June of 1891 because he was overworked.  J.D. was in his early 50s at this point and was physically and mentally exhausted from building his business empire.  To recover, Rockefeller spent 8 months at his Forest Hills estate doing manual labor with his workers in the fields, cycling, and going for long walks.  Rockefeller said in one of his letters “I am happy to state that my health is steadily improving.  I can hardly tell you how different the world begins to look to me.  Yesterday was the best day I have seen for 3 months.”  Cycling was part of the cure to clear the fog from this titan’s brain.

There can be a lot of excuses for not cycling, but most can be mitigated:

If it’s cold, layer up.

If you’re too tired, sometime you have to give energy to raise your energy level.

If you don’t have enough time, you can’t find a half hour during the week?  Really?

What problem has cycling helped you solve recently?  Let’s hear from you.

 

Entrepreneurship, Woodworking, and Clausewitzian Fog and Friction

karl von Clausewitz fog friction woodworking
Karl von Clausewitz

What does a 19th century Prussian military genius have to say about entrepreneurship and woodworking?  A lot!

The great Carl Von Clausewitz was a famous Prussian military leader and strategist who wrote a seminal book in 1832 called “On War” that is studied endlessly in the U.S. military’s war colleges.  Clausewitz wrote about many concepts that are useful for entrepreneurs and woodworkers, but I’ll focus on two here that have come to mind lately:  fog and friction.

Clausewitz says friction is like running in water.  It’s something that can be done very easily on land, but is not very easy in water.  Clausewitz says “Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.”  After 27 years in the military, I have encountered friction many times, so there is no surprise at seeing some in my entrepreneurial ventures and woodworking; however, it is still frustrating to experience.  How one responds to it is the most important thing.  One of the “joys” of woodworking is that it will force you to be patient.  For example, the other day I was working a piece in cherry which can change color depending on how much it’s been exposed to sunlight.  I was finishing up sanding the piece and was about to start wiping on finish, but was just not happy with the variation in color across the face.  I had inadvertently sanded away too much of the face that had absorbed the sun so the color wasn’t uniform any more.  Clausewitz’ friction had raised its ugly head because I was ready to press on with finishing, but had to stop and consider what to do.  One thing I’ve really strived for in Traughber Design is craftsmanship.  I don’t want a piece to ever leave the shop if I’m not happy with it.  Given that,  I closed the shop for the day and decided to sleep on it.  After a good night’s sleep, it was clear we needed to start over and resand with coarse 60 grit to get a consistent color, sand with 120, then 180, then continue the finishing process.  A calm, measured response is one way to respond to friction, and another is to just power through it which Clausewitz addresses in some detail.

Clausewitz says “Iron will-power can overcome this friction; it pulverizes every obstacle, but of course it wears down the machine as well.”  This is great counsel for an entrepreneur with a startup.  An entrepreneur can “pulverize every obstacle” for a while, but eventually only has a finite supply of will power.  It’s important to survey the battlefield (or business landscape) to assess where to focus that iron willpower, because one only has so much of it.  You can’t do everything and have to decide where to expend your finite time and energy.  This is especially important when you are building a business alongside a career as we discussed in blog post #1.

black walnut crown molding
Crown Molding in Black Walnut

Related to friction is a concept Clausewitz called fog.  This is essentially not knowing what is going on because you can’t see.  Fog, however, can be a good thing.  It forces us out of our comfort zone and also forces us to learn new things.  In some ways, at Traughber Design we seek fog because I like to always learn some new technique or tool on each project.  There have been some woodworking projects we took on where I had no idea (fog) how we were going to do a particular portion of the piece.  An example was the first gun cabinet project.  The plan called for a mitered crown molding (see picture above) made from three intricately routed pieces in black walnut which were then glued together.  We hadn’t made anything quite that elaborate before, but knew that by talking with more experienced woodworkers and researching online we could figure it out.  In that case we sought the fog.

Another example of fog is starting a new business.  When you are an entrepreneur, you are essentially jumping off a cliff into the unknown. The only thing you know for sure is the vision that’s in your head of what you would like the enterprise to be.  Every day you try to take steps to achieve that vision, but certain aspects don’t work out and you need to pivot to where the promising opportunities are.

Clausewitz said “Moreover, every war is rich in unique episodes.  Each is an uncharted sea, full of trees.  The commander may suspect the reefs’ existence without every having seen them; now he has to steer past them in the dark.”  Likewise, an entrepreneur has to attempt to sense the business reefs approaching and steer away from them in the dark.  One of the practical ways to do that is to identify risks and develop a mitigation strategy.  For example, one reef in small business is what happens if there is a fire and the shop burns down?  One mitigation strategy might be to beef up your insurance.  Another reef might be an area with which the entrepreneur is unfamiliar.  For example, operating a WordPress blog was a reef in my mind, but thanks to my sister’s suggestion, taking an online WordPress class mitigated the danger and actually created an opportunity since it showed possibilities with WordPress I hadn’t even anticipated.

If you’d like to read more from the great master, here is a link to the book on Amazon (the blog does not benefit if you buy the book).

Who knew all that study of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu during PME (Professional Military Education) would be so useful in starting a small business?