In 2003, I started a web design and development practice in Canton, NY. The local Chamber of Commerce provided a low-rent office and exposure to the business community in St. Lawrence County, and before long I was doing some work for local clients.
Over the next 7 years, I was privileged to work with clients in Northern New York and across the country. The business did well enough to take care of my family except for a brief downturn when I had to improvise by taking a job at a local gas station and then as a technical support specialist at Frazer Computing, a provider of software to car dealers. Then, when my business evaporated over the years 2009-2010, I was recruited into a corporate job that has since provided for my family.
What Caused My Business to Die?
It was difficult to watch my business crumble. I often wondered what caused my business go from more than $70,000 in income one year to less than $30,000 the next. There were some obvious contributing factors. I had grown weary of Web development and wanted to move into small business marketing just as the economic downturn hit full-force in my region. I had also grown weary of my business name and so attempted a full rebrand in concert with some new product offerings. My defeat was quick. Decisive.
The real cause of my business death, however, is much more subtle.
Every business owner wants to make money. When they hire a consultant like a Web developer, they view it as spending money to make money. For my average client, the name of the game was to spend as little money as possible to make as much money as possible. They wanted it fast, cheap, and of enough quality to make money. This was a problem for me.
I take pride in my work. I value both the process and the product of work, but I was unable to convince my clients that taking time to pay close attention to design details was worth the money it required. Something within me rebelled deeply against the necessary efficiencies that being in business required. Most developers were happy to reuse templates and make minor changes for each client. I wanted to do something new and exciting for each.
Soon, I was working for a few dollars an hour to meet my personal standards within the bounds of a fixed price to which I had agreed. This did not last long. No one likes to work for pennies, especially when a family needs feeding and housing.
Then I made the choice that I believe led to my business death. I decided to let my standards slip. I chose to do work that was “good enough” and not to do the things that I believed should be done. At this point, I was going through the motions, and I was no longer gratified by the work that I produced. My heart was no longer in the game.
There is a tension in being in business. None of us transacts in an ideal world. The needs of our clients and our personal needs along with those of our business do not always align. How do we handle this challenge? I wish I had spent more time defining what excellence meant to me and less time chasing dollars. But this experience has taught me a lesson that I want to share with you.
We need to stick to our values. Whatever excellence means in our work, we should hold to it tenaciously.
I found a note in one of my many idea books recently. I don’t know if it comes from my reading at the time, or if it’s my idea. It crystallizes the idea that excellence is important in our work.
Excellence breeds passion.
Passion feeds innovation.
Innovation drives business.
A firm commitment to excellence is where it all begins. Nobody wants to work with someone who cuts corners and only focuses on producing a product efficiently, but they don’t want to overpay either. If I had chosen to continue working for pennies on the dollar just a few months longer, I may have had a discovery. An innovation may have emerged that would have allowed me to work with greater speed without sacrificing design. For example, if I had spent less time hating templates and instead built my library of useful templates and widgets that were flexible enough to accommodate good design, I may well have succeeded.
The Lesson from Failure
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not beating myself up here. I am thankful for what happened, and I am grateful to work for a good company in Memphis Tennessee. However, there is some regret that remains from my time as a business owner. My regret is that I did not stick to my own convictions when they cost me money. We must feed our families, but it is better to do this by taking other jobs than by sacrificing our own commitment to excellence for short-term gain. Excellence in all things is, I believe, what drives our success.