What We Can Learn from The Impoverished Craftsman

Aug. 1, 2006
A contractor wrote to me in an email, I have never been able to figure out some guys. They think that being underpaid, undervalued and in debt is some

A contractor wrote to me in an email, “I have never been able to figure out some guys. They think that being underpaid, undervalued and in debt is some badge of honor that goes along with being a quality craftsman.”

If you can’t figure it out either, then this Comanche Marketing is probably not for you. If, on the other hand, this strikes a nerve or sounds familiar, this Comanche Marketing might be one to think about.

Do yourself a favor. Don’t react emotionally. Read it. Think about it. Consider it. And maybe, make some changes.

The Small Business Owner
I’ve long held a special affinity for the small business owner. I remember my father telling stories about how hard my grandfather worked during the depression to operate the Michel Tire Company in Saint Joseph, MO. Grandpa worked hard, was honest in his dealings with others, but never seemed to get very far ahead. He was always running scared.

That could be said for many small business owners. They revel in their craft, in the work, but they hate the nuts and bolts of making the business prosper. They hate the crude, crass functions of accounting, marketing, and especially, sales.

The Source of Business Starts
Some businesses start to pursue a new idea, an invention, or a concept. Most small businesses start because the owner seeks freedom. The owner hangs out a shingle so he can pursue his craft as he sees fit. He wants the freedom to do the job right, without a boss looking over his shoulder critiquing and urging him to hurry along. Surely, if he performs the craft right, the way he knows it can and should be done, everything else will fall into place. People will seek him out. The money will be there.

It rarely works that way. The irony of the craftsman as businessman is that once he launches his own venture, the craftsman is confronted with the need to give up the very thing he loves most, the craft.

Impossible Standards
Some craftsmen accept the need to learn a new set of skills, a new “craft,” so to speak. They embrace the notion of building a business and, though they are letting go of the craft, find a replacement that’s even more fulfilling: the craft of building a great business.

Yet for other craftsmen, this is impossible. They cannot give up the craft. Even if they could, they can never find anyone to do the work. No one measures up. No one meets his or her standards. No one is as good a craftsman as they are.
Faced with the prospect of hiring someone who fails to meet their standards, they never hire anyone. They can’t do it all. They can’t practice the craft and manage the business. So they shift as much of the business burden as possible to their spouses. What their spouses can’t or don’t know how to do, doesn’t get done.

This burden gets thrown on a spouse who is already trying to run a household and likely holds down another job to help pay the bills. It strains the marriage. It stresses the family.

Business Novices
Great craftsmen know how to turn a wrench, but not how to turn a profit. They’re business novices. The craftsman usually undercharges. He undercharges because he still thinks in personal terms, not business terms. He relates pricing to the pay he earned working for someone else. He thinks like a craftsman, not a businessman.

He doesn’t realize that by undercharging he is subsidizing his customers at his company’s, family’s, and own expense. If he works through the numbers and understands them intellectually, he doesn’t accept them psychologically. The craftsman doesn’t think he is personally worth what the business needs to charge. His self-esteem won’t allow him to charge what he should to build a business, to build a better lifestyle, to build a future. Since he wouldn’t pay what the business demands for himself, he can’t imagine others paying it. He associates higher rates with larceny.

He misses the fact that while his customers appreciate his conscientiousness, they wish he would respond faster, handle complaints and callbacks with more aplomb, and provide those little service extras that he can’t afford because he doesn’t charge enough.

Every callback becomes a threat. Every callback is food off his table, money out of his pocket. He still responds. The craftsman inside him demands a response. Yet, the husband, the father, the owner, responds grudgingly. Already under stress, customers sense his reluctance and quickly turn adversarial, further souring his attitude and starting a slippery slide down the path to customer conflict.

The Impoverished Craftsman
Impoverished and nearly always broke, the craftsman is continually juggling. He makes do without small luxuries for himself and his family. He thinks twice before going out to eat. The most minor investment in his business is a reason to pause. Can he afford it? How much does he have in the checking account? Can he make the bills balance out?

The impoverished craftsman may steal a three-day weekend here and there, but he rarely takes a real vacation. He can’t afford to. He can’t afford it financially. He can’t afford to be away. Who will take care of the customers?

He’s always worried about the dry spells, the times when the calls do not come. It’s not merely the dearth of revenue that bothers him; it’s the free time. Free time is frightening. Free time allows for introspection, thought, consideration about where he is and where he wants to be in life. Free time forces him to confront the thought that it wasn’t supposed to be like this. It wasn’t supposed to be this hard. He once had such dreams.

As long as he can hold it together, keep the wolves at bay, and stay one step ahead of bankruptcy, the impoverished craftsman remains static. He can’t, won’t go back. He won’t work for someone else. His pride won’t allow it. His honor won’t stand it.

So he exists . . . barely. He exists safely within a defined comfort zone. He can’t bring himself to leave the comfort zone, to let go of the craft and learn a new one, to take the steps necessary to succeed.

When he sees others in his trade doing well, he asks how. Why are they successful when he’s struggling? It requires a hard look in the mirror to answer the question. It requires facing the truth that his greatest enemy is staring back.

Forced to confront a world that heaps rewards in equal measure to the value provided to society on those he disdains, he rationalizes. Why they aren’t even craftsmen, he thinks. They’re salesmen, marketers, high priced hucksters, overcharging their customers.

The fact that the customers of these companies may be aware they’re paying a little more, yet are still satisfied with the arrangement eludes the craftsman. He concludes that the successful must have cheated, lied, deceived. To think otherwise is to take responsibility, to realize he could also be successful had he made different choices. To think otherwise is to recognize his lot in life; his die was cast by himself.

As time goes on, he regards the successful business owners with greater and greater animosity. If someone reaches out to help, he slaps the hand away. He shuts himself off from new ideas and new concepts. He becomes the antithesis of the successful companies in his field and seeks like-minded individuals to reinforce his worldview and salve his tenuous esteem.

To the outside world, he’s brash, bold, and confident in the purity of his ways. It’s a cover. Underneath is a nagging sense of self-doubt that he cannot allow to rise to the surface. To allow it to emerge is to face reality . . . to face the need to change.

The End Game
As time goes on, he finds it harder and harder to perform the craft he loves so well. His body, abused and slightly broken, resists when he struggles to carry more loads, to squeeze into more inaccessible spaces. Backaches and stiff joints become his constant companion. Still, he can’t stop. He can’t afford to. His only exit strategy is the final exit. So he works until he can work no longer, old, impoverished, pained, proud, stubborn, and bitter.

The tragedy is that it’s unnecessary. Life doesn’t have to turn out that way. Almost every successful business owner was once an impoverished craftsman who had an epiphany, who was splashed with the cold reality of true self-insight, who faced and accepted the need to change.

Giving up the known for the unknown and unfamiliar is never easy. It’s always terrifying. The knowledge of the craft is comforting, secure, satisfying. Craftsmen who can’t abandon the comfort, security, and satisfaction of the craft for the business would be better served working for someone else. They would have more money. They would have fewer hassles. They would have more stability.

A craftsman who can’t bring himself to work for someone else, must learn a new craft. He must learn the craft of business. He must learn how to hire people who may not be as good as he is and to let go. He must learn how to coach his employees and how to trust them, accepting that every now and then he will trust the untrustworthy.

The craftsman must look at the business objectively. He must divorce business-pricing demands from a craftsman’s wage demands and determine the right pricing for the business. He must study the unfamiliar disciplines of sales and marketing. In short, he must leave his comfort zone and change. He must give up the craft to build the business.

The good news is there’s never been a better time in history to build a business. More resources are available for the small business owner than ever before. There is more knowledge, more information, more tools, and more general prosperity. A prosperous world is a world of opportunity.

While not everyone is prosperous today, anyone can prosper today. Anyone who works hard, applies himself or herself, stretches, grows, and takes risks can attain prosperity. Maybe you won’t rival Bill Gates, but you can control your own destiny. You can become financially secure. It won’t happen overnight. It won’t happen in a linear manner. You will face sidetracks and setbacks. Still, you can succeed. You can prosper.

If, in your prosperity, you find you miss the craft, you can always return to it. You can hire a manager to run your business while you run around on a truck. It’s funny though. I know a lot of people who left the truck and built prosperous businesses. None of them returned. I think the reason is that building a prosperous business is fun. It’s satisfying. It’s fulfilling. It can be more fun that the craft.

You’ve only got one life on this planet. You might as well build the best life you can. It’s not too late. Get started now.

Matt Michel is president of the Service Roundtable (www.ServiceRoundtable.com), an organization dedicated to helping contractors prosper. Matt is also the publisher of Comanche Marketing, a free marketing e-zine. Subscriptions are available at www.ComancheMarketing.com. You can contact him directly at [email protected]. Or send your comments to Contracting Business at [email protected].