Going Pro: Is Self-Employment Right For You?

Part 2 of a series

by Douglas Bittinger

When I first discovered that some people just cannot handle self-employment, it surprised me, for I much prefer being my own boss to the work-a-day grind. But there are a good number of people who cannot work effectively without the structure of a 9:00 to 5:00, Monday through Friday job. There is no shame in that; it's just a difference in personalities.

I once knew a young woman who was shocked to find that I was terrified by the thought of going out on stage for a high school play. I very much preferred to be a stage hand or set builder, or water fetcher or ANYTHING but an actor. How could this be? She LOVED being on stage; the center of attention. Having to remain behind the scenes would have crushed her. Our personalities were different.

In the same way, some people prefer the security of a regular paycheck and a time clock. They know when to work and when to go home, and they have an income they can plan on. Usually. Then there are those of us who have little trouble motivating ourselves to work when it's time to work and play when it's time to play. We don't see it as living on the edge, it's just a matter of discipline. Differences in personalities.

If you're not sure which kind of person you are, you need to take a good, hard, HONEST, look at your work habits and life style. When the boss goes away for a bit, do you find excuses to goof off? (Do you even NEED excuses? Do you figure, "No one is looking, so no one will care.") Does your spouse have to nag you to get things done around the house? Is your Job Jar getting bigger and bigger? If so self employment will likely be difficult for you.

If you find that you lack the discipline to be your own boss, it does not mean that you must give up on woodworking. There are plenty of woodworking shops where a skilled person can find regular employment. Working here will give you the structure you need in your life and still allow you to enjoy woodworking as a career.

If you are the sort that applies yourself and works at your task even when no one is monitoring you, if you can look around the homestead and find things that need doing - and do them, you should succeed in self-employment. It's all about self-discipline.

This is not to say that you must be a workaholic or self-slave driver. Self employment does give you an unprecedented level of flexibility if you are good at effective time management. If you're not a morning person, sleep in; start mid-morning and work later into the evening. Like being up at the crack of dawn? Start early and go home at 3:00. Does one of the kids have a big soccer game - by all means, schedule to be there and cheer. If you are pretty well caught up with your work and it's a beautiful spring day and your fishing rod is singing love songs to you, take the afternoon off and go fishing. You have the flexibility to set your own hours according to your own preferences and needs.

But as a self-employed woodworker, if you don't work you don't get paid. There are no paid sick days and no paid vacation either; at least not at first. It is up to you to figure out whether you need to be working or could take some time off. There is no one there scowling at you if you come in late, or leave early or wander around in a daze because it's a beautiful day or sit and chat for an hour with the neighbor who dropped by. This is all in your hands. Can you discipline yourself to work when needed? Can you lay the tools down, turn off the lights and go "home" when it's time to quit?

Being slothful will cause you to fail in your business, but being diligent and hard working can be carried too far as well. Being a workaholic can destroy your family life -- and that, my friend, is too precious to risk. You must also be self disciplined enough to say, "Time to quit. I'll pick this up again tomorrow."

Depending on what kind of work you plan to do and how you plan to market it, you may also need the ability to tell people "no" without feeling like a heel.

I know a couple who worked themselves practically to death trying to meet the needs of an increasingly demanding client. Then at the end of the year they sat down and figured out their profits and were astounded to see how little they had made for all their labor after the bills were paid. You want to accommodate your clients whenever possible, but must be vigilant against those who will use you mercilessly if you let them. Know what is realistic and stay within those bounds. If the client decides to walk away, you're probably better off -- even though it may not seem that way at the moment.

On the other hand I know some woodworkers who think very highly of themselves and their work, perhaps deservedly so, perhaps not. But they have a habit of alienating prospective clients because they will only do things a certain way. They are closed to new ideas or the wishes of the client. Again, there do need to be boundaries but don't box yourself in so tightly that you can't find work.

Where these boundaries lie can be difficult to tell. I met a fellow once who does nothing but turn very high-end pepper mills. They are beautiful, but I have to wonder what happens if folks suddenly lose interest in pepper mills costing many hundreds of dollars. A little diversification seems like good insurance.

And finally, if you will be working from your home, or near your home, you will need to enlist the aid of friends and family in setting and maintaining boundaries concerning your work day. When you are at work, they need to respect that fact and not be always interrupting you just because you are closeby.

This may be a difficult concept for younger kids who are accustomed to you working in your shop as a hobby. This is all the more reason to have discussed the changes that will need to take place when you convert your woodworking from hobby to occupation. But if they know that you will be "home" at a particular time, it makes it easier for them to not encroach on your "work" time.


Douglas Bittinger has been building custom fine furniture for over 25 years, and has been lead repair tech for a major furnishings retail store chain. Along with his wife, Marie, he currently operates Smoky Mountain Woodworks in Edwina, TN.

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