Originally Posted: 6/10/2011
“Do something awesome …something amazing.”
That was the job description given to me a long time ago just before I accepted a position at a small start-up IT company. I was trying to break out of the life-drag called Corporate America and during the interview process I asked for more details on my potential job duties. And the quote above is was what I heard in reply. When I realized he wasn’t kidding I was …moved. I was so inspired that I wanted desperately to do something, well, awesome and amazing. It was everything I needed to hear at that point in my life. With that one sentence I had been both empowered and granted personal accountability. The trust coupled with expectation that was handed to me was nothing less than food to my starving motivation. In the year that followed I
gave more of myself to that organization than any other before it. I wanted to. I was personally invested in making sure my job description was expertly executed.
When I reflect on the years that have passed I tend to recognize that as the moment I realized I was meant to be an entrepreneur rather than an employee in somebody else’s business. Yes, I realize how that statement is initially dichotomous; becoming an entrepreneur while accepting a job to work for someone else. A person will mentally be an entrepreneur for some time before they amass the means to actually be one. Rather than looking to my bosses for kudos and acknowledgements for my efforts I became more interested in how I felt about the work I was doing. Other people were ultimately secondary. If I was happy with the results of my work I seldom needed to wonder if my bosses would be good with it. I held myself to a higher standard and it was reflected in the quality of my production. Excerpts of my inner-monologue included:
- “If you are going to do something, do it well.”
- “If you’re going to do it you might as well do it exceptionally well.”
- “If you can’t do it well, don’t do it at all.”
And over the years it’s that last quote that has caused me such angst. Being excellent at a few things is do-able. We can all do that. Being excellent at a lot of things is challenging. And not doing things because you can’t do them exceptionally well can be a problem. The choices I have made (e.g. being in the live animal business) require that certain things must be done; they cannot be ignored or neglected. And over the years I have crafted a life that impossibly requires me to be excellent at too many things. As a result, a vicious cycle is at work. If I can’t do it well, I won’t do it. Since I want (or need) to do it I must do it well. Doing a lot of things very well is difficult to maintain. Trying to do too many things exceptionally well means you end up doing many of them not so well. Realizing that you are not doing some things well means you have to either A) quit doing those things, B) work harder (or longer) at doing them well again and/or C) stress yourself out over the fact that you aren’t doing things as well as you should be (while trying to decide if you should be doing A or B).
I have become something of a mental train-wreck on this topic. Like no other time in my life I feel torn between multiple radically different worlds. I own and operate an ever-expanding reptile business. I also own a thriving information technology company. While the computer stuff comes in handy from time-to-time in the reptile world I can’t say that the opposite is true. Computer people seldom need my herpertocultural skills. As a result, I live two incredibly different professional lives. Both are full-time jobs and they regularly conflict with each other. I am accountable to my animals and I am accountable to my IT business partners. Fortunately I don’t have much of a social life but I do have a family life that is more important than any of my other roles. I have to balance the three and I continue to insist on being excellent at each. The family part is relatively easy. If I start to not be an excellent husband or father I have always said I will quit the other two without notice. Neither of them mean much in comparison. But part of being a good father and husband is being a good protector and provider so continuing to also be excellent at the money-earning components of my life is a requirement of the most important part of my life. It’s a bit of a circular conundrum.
Like many reptile breeders, I have help. I have good people that sometimes help me clean cages and keep my facility tidy. But even with all of the help they give me I am still constantly struggling to keep up. I need more. As any keeper of a large number of animals knows, the dirty work is endlessly repetitive. I clean enclosures every single day, usually for multiple hours. And it is incredibly common that the enclosure I cleaned last night will need to be cleaned again the next day. Snakes have an uncanny habit of waiting until you clean their house before fouling it up. Sometimes I think it’s a game they play. Because I have an obligation to my animals I can’t let them sit in a dirty cage. This compels me to check their cages very regularly and give them the attention they need. Because of the quantity of snakes I keep this takes a lot of time.
As a medium-sized reptile breeder I need to spend my time doing four different things:
- Selling (and buying)
Once your collection hits a certain size you will begin to struggle to do all four extremely well. And this is where my philosophy on how to do thing is causing me problems. The size of my collection and the other demands in my life are making it increasingly difficult to do all four very well. There is another nasty cycle at work. I currently spend more time feeding and cleaning than I do selling. And from one perspective, that is just dumb. No margin, no mission, right? I should be aggressively selling every day, but I don’t. I should be working through my client list, making calls and putting together deals. But I’m not. Why? I’m too busy cleaning and feeding. I often have animals that I know are desirable to others that go for months on the rack and never get offered for sale. And because I’m not selling as aggressively as I need to be I don’t feel financially comfortable committing to the money it will take to hire somebody else to do the feeding and cleaning. My problems are not new; I’m not the first to live them. Every single small business owner who went from a one-man shop to a larger enterprise did what I have been reluctant to do: leap. On this point I haven’t been drinking my own Kool-Aid. One of the guiding philosophies of my life has been “leap, and the net will appear.” But with the growth of this reptile business I still haven’t successfully done it. I can’t stop feeding and cleaning in order to sell. So I am left with two choices:
- Reduce the size of the collection to something that can be easily managed.
Choice number one isn’t going to happen. It’s simply not what I want. That leaves only option #2. But hiring somebody (leaping) means turning over a function that must continue to be done extremely well. And one thing is true: nobody will ever do it as well as me. No, that’s not ego, it’s fact. The same is true for everybody. Remember the old adage, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” The truth in that statement is not that I am the best at something, it’s that nobody else is likely to be as personally invested in making sure it is done right. And why would they be? It’s not theirs. People who work in corporate America often hear their bosses encouraging them to have a “sense of ownership”. Every employer dreams of their workers feeling this way because it helps to increase the quality of production. People who “own” are more personally invested in the outcome and are therefore more likely to do something better than those who do not. If you live in the United States you have almost certainly encountered the general level of apathy in many of the workers you encounter during your daily meanderings. Whether it’s poor service by a cashier at the grocery or the inattentive waiter we all regularly see the product of people not owning their work. As annoying as it is being a customer on the receiving end imagine how scary it is for the real owner of the business. You create and nurture your business. You pour your soul into making it successful. That success forces you to hire help. And it is quite possible that the help will suck. In a perfect world the help you have will continue to nurture, to “own”. But the world is not perfect so you must come to terms with the fact that there will almost certainly be a reduction in quality from what you, the owner, would do. But if I want to grow my business I cannot forever be all things to all people. I have to let go.
These are not new dilemma’s for me. Because I choose to be in the live animal business I also choose to provide excellent care for my animals. I cannot neglect the production capacity by not keeping my animals well fed and clean. But at the same time I have to do a better job of actually trying to sell the animals I produce. All aspects of the cycle must be given necessary time and attention. Stephen Covey calls it the P/PC balance (Google it).
In the end analysis I know what I need to do. I knew it before I started writing. Business is not static; you are either growing or you are contracting. I am growing.