Wednesday, September 21, 2005

running the show

A friend of mine texted me last night: “I can actually get a sense of your stress levels by the frequency (or lack) of your blog posts”. True. I mean, look: it is 4AM and now is the only time I’m actually writing.

These past couples of weeks have been particularly stressful, and I can barely make time to write, guerilla-style or not. The demands of running my businesses take up a lot of my mental and actual time. There’s a lot to juggle just to keep things at an even keel. I’m just glad that I have a business partner to share the load with.

Some people look at me and are impressed by all the balls I manage to juggle and actually keep in the air. Let me tell you, there are times I honestly want to just…stop. Stop and let things fall where they may. Like most people, I came from a background of working for other people, and there are times when it is so tempting to go back to that world, where I don’t have to think too much. However, those times of weakness quickly pass and like the energizer bunny, I just keep on going. It is difficult for me to imagine going back, almost like a regression, to working for someone else. I’ve gotten used to the day-to-day challenges and (almost) thrive on the miniature anguish that varied clients and projects bring.

I tell my friends that prior to taking the plunge and becoming a businessman, my business acumen – on a scale from 1 to 10 – was in the negatives. I mean, come on. If you showed me a bunch of numbers then and my eyes would glaze over. I was used to thinking in words, and mathematics was anathema to me. I always thought I’d be an impoverished (but fulfilled) writer. But when I did take the entrepreneurial path, I found out that numbers, while important, where not the be-all end-all of business, and that there was a need for words as well as for the analytical part of my brain. There was room for all the silly things I picked up through books and conversations in my younger years, as well as space for stories. The entrepreneurial world teems with different tales: how someone tried this and failed, how someone tried that and succeeded, the origins of various businesses, how a supply chain was developed, "the strength of strong ties" and "strength of weak ties" (social networks), how someone knew somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody who had the proper skill set or knowledge to make a start-up happen. Many, many stories that a storyteller like me could appreciate and learn from.

As it happens, I also encountered a number of “truisms” that in retrospect may not be truisms at all. These are stated in rather favorable, positive terms, but have an aspect that is never quite openly revealed – until you learn the secret lessons by actually living as an entrepreneur.

You work on your own time.

This is true in the sense that you can decide when you want to work, since the business belongs to you. However, in the case of my two primary businesses (the integrated marketing firm and the pet store only, because I don’t really consider the publishing a business per se), there is such a concept as business hours. The clients for Kestrel are corporate, brand and non-government organizations. They all adhere to business hours, which means that meetings, briefs, presentations, consultancies and like occur between 8AM and 6PM.

Also, I deal with suppliers – printers, color separators, publishers, computer software and hardware people, as well as a variety of service providers – that all operate during business hours. So obviously, I need to work during business hours. In addition, some of these clients and suppliers are in the US or some other part of the world, which means that the occasional midnight conference calls or briefs are par for course.

And that’s not all. As the owner/partner of the business, I think about the endeavor beyond office hours, which means that it spills into my time at home. In fact, there is never truly a time when I can put down my businessman’s hat (well, except when I’m crooning away at videoke). As for the pet store, it devours part of my weekend as well. And mall hours are longer than normal business hours (for the time being, Megamall closes at 10PM on weekends, for example) and while I do not man the pet store myself, I am on call should any of my salesladies have problems.

So do I determine my own time? Yes. But the truth is that it goes beyond the normal business hours, unlike the good people who whose work-time ends when its time to go home. And the thing is I choose to work longer than most people.

You are your own boss.

Sigh. While other people can apply to their bosses for a leave of absence, I cannot write to myself. While other people can run to their bosses for advice over difficulties encountered, I’m the one smack dab in the middle of things – if I don’t put out the fire, no one will. The buck stops with me. So while it great to be the boss, it also sucks big time when unpleasant things occur and I’m the father-figure, expected to know what to do. If I don’t know, I learn really fast. It’s a matter of survival.

So am I my own boss? Yes. But there are times, especially when my plate is filled to overflowing with various things that need to be done, that I wish I had a boss to run to. But that’s not going to happen, so teeter on the delightful edge of a vertiginous precipice and learn how to balance.

You pay yourself what you want.

Ah, the fallacy of unlimited compensation. When you are an employee, you have a sense of how much your services are worth – you do have a commensurate market rate. You spend time going up the salary ladder until you get the amount that you feel is proper and comfortable. When you are the owner of a business, you are acutely aware of the numbers – the entire backend of operations is exposed and you know that the money you want has to come from somewhere, which means more projects or sales. You work your ass off to provide just compensation for your employees and realize that, in the priority of things, your own compensation is somewhere down the totem pole of things.

Here’s a truth common to many of my entrepreneurial friends: the owner is usually the last person who gets a raise. Those who do not adhere to this kind of thinking usually do not last long. If your goal is to aggrandize yourself immediately, most likely your business will fail – because someone (you) is pillaging it. Entrepreneurs need to learn how to be patient, how to pour love, time and money into a business to make it grow. Return on Investment comes later.

Do I pay myself what I want? Yes, I do. I pay myself a salary commensurate to a professional of my level, skills and ability in the open market - if I didn't then having my own business wouldn't make sense. And like everyone else, I could always use more. The difference is I know I cannot pay myself more at this time, unlike others who can demand a raise every so often. The goal of every entrepreneur, whether stated openly or coyly unstated, is to be rich. I am not rich. Not by a long shot. But there is a plan. I just have to patient. And canny.

All you need is capital and a good idea.

Please. Of all the so-called “truisms”, this perhaps is most painful. It is not true. My previous business venture had capital in the millions of pesos and a boatload of good ideas and intentions. My partners and I burned our way through our war chest very quickly, despite our wonderful ideas, and ultimately closed shop after an exhausting (and costly but educational) run.

You need to have a multitude of business plans – not just one, but many, some developed as needs arise because circumstances will demand flexibility in how you think and run your business. You need to wade through all the paperwork required by government on a regular basis. You need to have good contacts and champion clients. You need to have reliable suppliers (ah, don’t me started on that one). You need to have clearly defined work processes – a design process, a management process, a project management process, a time management process. You need to develop a supply chain. You need to work out logistics. You need to manage your finances responsibly. You need to market your business, making client calls, getting your name out in the market. You need to be aware of market forces and dynamics. You need to know what you competitors are doing. You need to innovate, adapt and adjust to economic realities. You need to be lithe and not bogged down by the very processes you so painstakingly developed – when it is time to change. You need to balance incrementalism versus growtth.

Is it true that all I needed was capital and a good idea? Absolutely not. Unless you understand that you need to expand the definition of capital beyond money, and include intellectual capital, knowledge capital, network capital, and so on. Believe me, if all you needed was money (which can be raised in a number of ways), then social reality would be drastically different.

And so?

There are more, of course, but I’m getting sleepy. But despite all I’ve said, I wouldn’t exchange my current circumstances with a regular 9-to-5 job. I do wish for a lot of things like more time to write stories, plays, comics and novels, but the entrepreneurial path gives a high better than any drug. In this arena, my mind and ability to grow gets challenged at every turn – and that makes me a fulfilled man.

And somehow, I get to write anyway (and I actually think that I’d write less fruitfully if I had nothing else to do) – I get published on occasion and continue to win critical nods once in a while. I even get to put together creative projects that are an expression of my writerly agenda.

And I always have time for my wife and daughter.

So it all works out somehow (honestly, I don’t know how, but it does). I do want a vacation and there’s a trip to the US in December, so again it’s a matter of patience.

So despite the stress, I'm actually okay. And really, that's what matters.

(I think I will send myself a memo about that raise now - and hope for the best. LOL)

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