Book Review – Boss Life: Surviving My Own Small Business

mediumBy Paul Downs

352 Pages, Blue Rider Press, 2015

Paperback: $16, e-Read version: $12.99

In a Nutshell – A year in the life of a furniture company owner who is more than candid about his failures and success.

Who’s it for? – Those seeking to understand the true rigors of small business ownership.

Quote from author – “I’ve been running a small business for the last 29 years. And all that time I’ve been reading business journalism. And I never see anything that reflects my own experience: that business is confusing, difficult, and nerve-wracking. I’ve never arrived at a point where I suddenly have a lot of money and the wisdom to match. My days are filled both with ordinary duties and random catastrophes.”

“Boss Life” by Paul Downs is a true departure from most business books that wax poetic over meteoric successes while glossing over the mistakes, toil, and troubles that happened along the way. Unlike many famous entrepreneurs that were fortunate or lucky, Downs admits from the onset that his custom conference table business was almost left for dead several times during his career.

Downs first revealed his frank confessions about ownership as a guest contributor in the New York Times blog: You’re the Boss. After finding voice as a writer, the book Boss Life became a way for him to tell is story as an Ivy League graduate that spurned a lucrative professional career to go out and make furniture on his own.

That was 1986 and now almost 30 years later, Downs has accumulated more than his share of lessons to be learned, mostly from his own mistakes and circumstances that could never be planned for. In the beginning it was just Downs working on his own. As customer and family demands grew, so did his company, its number of employees, and the complications of making it all work.

“Boss Life” is organized as a year in the life (2012) of his company with 12 individual chapters covering each month of that year. Each chapter begins with the amount of money Paul Downs Cabinetmakers has in its checking account, its cash position relative to the beginning of the year, and new sales value, year-to-date. Downs explains that it has taken him years to understand how to accurately project cash flow and formulate sales goals needed to be reached to keep the company solvent.

Some of the lessons that Downs learns along the way are gut wrenching. The book was written just two years after the company almost went out of business. Downs’ business partner at the time decided on his own to empty out the company’s checking account to pay off a line of credit. The partner then left the company leaving Downs on the brink of bankruptcy.

Downs was forced to lay off most of his staff while spending the majority of his personal savings to keep the business afloat. It’s sobering to hear Downs reveal that as his son is graduating from high school and is accepted to a prestigious university, that the family college fund has been emptied to bail out the company.

Trying to engage and motivate employees after such circumstances also becomes a challenge. The company rebounds and Downs realizes that as he approaches the age of 50 that he can’t fight the battle forever. He mentors a younger employee to manage his floor workers and spends money that he doesn’t have to hire a consultant to work with his fledgling two-person sales staff.

It’s Down’s realization that he has to evolve and change that is the turning point for both the book and the company. His ability to describe his courageous approach to his daily challenges (raising a family, disgruntled customers, entitled employees, sleepless nights) make “Boss Life” a business book like no other.

Chris Wendel is a business consultant and commercial lender with Northern Initiatives, a community development financial institution based in Marquette. Wendel resides and works in Traverse City. He can be reached at cwendel@northerninitiatives.org

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