I feel your pain – literally. As a well experienced, dedicated technology worker active through the decades, I’ve also struggled with building and operating even the tiniest business in my domain that didn’t have multiple serious problems.
Whether you’re an artisan or craftsperson, a technologist, a creative pro such as a photographer – you may wonder why you see so many businesses that are doing so bloody well run by indifferent owners.
Let’s discuss these issues.
What the book “The E-Myth Revisited” says about building a new business
The iconic small business startup book The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber discusses how to make the transition from “doer” to “business builder”. It’s not straightforward or easy, even though he lays it out in a seemingly logical way.
The E-Myth Revisited also relates to that real life disconnect between expertise and rewards.
Some people I’ve spoken with dislike the metaphor of Sarah’s Pie Shop that runs throughout The E-Myth Revisited as a representation of the self made business person. (In summary – Sarah is a baker who attempts to start a pie shop, and she begins failing to keep the shop running smoothly because she is a “baking wonk” and focused only on baking and pies.)
In fact I read people who hate the store narrative since they don’t think it applies to them. Or they find it patronizing and condescending to them personally.
Those of us who have read and understand The E-Myth Revisited learned exactly what the pie shop narrative is trying to teach (even if the pie shop metaphor seems juvenile or beneath us): the unhappy owner of the poorly performing business who is a subject matter expert at their trade or craft is an extremely common pitfall.
In fact it’s the most likely state of affairs when highly talented, creative, dedicated business owners start businesses.
Programmers, website designers, photographers, mechanics, chefs, artisans of various kinds… experts just like you – all find it very difficult to find a balance when they own a business.
But, you knew or at least sensed all of that. Didn’t you? It can sound and feel bleak.
Here’s some reflection into why and how small business works well – when it does…
Do You Really Hate the Successful Owner, Marketer or Salesperson who Looks Down on the “Craft”?
Yeah, I used the word “hate”. Choose your own term if necessary. (Accessorize with voodoo dolls at your option.)
We mentioned earlier the seemingly less-than-dedicated business owner who doesn’t seem to be personally invested in the subject matter of the business who does quite well.
The key to success of the business in part may come from that detachment. This detachment can allow the “disinterested” owner to run the business for best profitability.
Such an owner probably reasons – rightfully – “I have people I hired who are the brains who solve these problems.”
That kind of attitude is a best-case situation where the owner sees dollars rather than interesting problems being solved. There are far worse attitudes among owner, however. The owner who actively demeans the expert work, and reaps the rewards from those he disrespects! It’s quite common.
Take as an example the glib, highly sociable owner or sales person who looks down on “geeks”, artists, or anyone who provides the expertise that they sell and make a lot of money off of. IT professionals who use agencies to place them in short term contracts are very used to this type of demeaning “sharecropping” like situation.
Or the small business owner who shuts down conversations about improving the product because he claims that what the business provides is “good enough.”
I’ve even run into a few business owners who dismiss their core customers as addled, childish enthusiasts. An example is the owner of a large surplus store in Dayton, Ohio who one day popped into the computer store in Kettering I worked at in college. He told us that he sold “this computer crap” in his store, too.
What Expert Owned Business Pattern Isn’t Common?
What kind of owner-operator haven’t I seen over the years?
I simply haven’t seen that many (or any) owner-operators of profitable and successful businesses above the one employee level who have noteworthy, high personal expertise and interest in the craft related to what they produce.
I’m talking about businesses that are not highly paid self employment for a noteworthy expert.
There are some expert-run businesses but they are the exception, not the rule or even very common.
Bill Gates and Elon Musk are probably both quite rusty at coding. As an example.
Examples of Successful Know-Nothings and Unsuccessful Experts
There’s lots of examples of indifferent owners of successful businesses that you can probably relate to – because you’ve seen extremely similar patterns in real life.
- The successful IT support company owner who’d never, ever be invited to be a guest speaker for some IT technical discussion … because he doesn’t know anything specific that is newer than Windows XP.
- The well fed restaurateur who can’t scramble an egg and who takes his family to Wendy’s to eat.
- The arrogant and douchey online marketer who shops out all of his content writing overseas to the lowest price $1 an article bidders, because all he wants is keyword placement and product mentions, and quality isn’t even on his radar.
I actually know three individuals and businesses that fit each of these cases.
These successful people are generally highly offensive to the hard working true expert. Why? Their success mocks your skills.
Be perfectly honest. You’d like to see people like yourself winning. But they often don’t. It’s quite often the ones who look down on real skills who win.
The fact is that they are also making money… when you aren’t.
Deny it if you like but there’s more examples that match my statements than examples to the contrary.
Just for sadistic fun at the reader’s expense 🙂, here’s role reversals of these three success situations that parallel the cases of success I described above.
- The dedicated software developer with decades of experience who struggles and who continually runs into bad paying clients who don’t appreciate him.
- The high end experienced chef whose new restaurant collapses in the wake of bad customer reviews after investing his life savings and 80 hour weeks for months on end.
- The dedicated marketer or wanna-be copywriter who is like a hamster in a wheel re-inventing his website several times in as many years, and getting almost no traction with new customers.
Specific Tactics: How Do You Get Past “Expert Founder’s Syndrome”?
Here’s some specific tactics for dealing with your own perfectionism for your craft.
1) Delegate. That means finding a trusted employee or partner or two, who objectively see how your business is doing overall and who communicates that back to you. To keep you honest, and focused on success.
Ideally such an individual has background in, or familiarity with what your business does. Or at least has absolutely stellar common sense (which is NOT common.) Don’t use an individual who is obsessed with details or trivia or is self righteously knowledgeable. In other words pick someone who complements you – don’t pick an obsessed, picky expert like yourself.
You really need a “Number One” (A la Star Trek: The Next Generation.) Your Number One should be good at what the business sells – but not absorbed in it as a personal passion. Most important, your “Number One” should have the privilege of calling you out and talking directly to you (behind closed doors) to help you stay focused on the business. But that’s not their only role. Your confidant or “Number One” should also tell you whether you are getting “hotter or colder” in day to day tasks as far as keeping the business running well.
2) Detach. You need to be able to walk away from obsessing over the best source code you can write, or the perfect braise or sear or smoke, or the most perfect woodwork joint – and watch your customers, or deal with accounting, or perform marketing tasks, or train or mentor employees as needed… Whatever is necessary.
3) Accept. You will have to accept less than the best attainable results in your work product and especially the work product of your employees. You may need to accept good enough for the customer as your criteria for good work results. You as executive of your business, of course, must determine that sweet spot compromise between “perfect” and “fully acceptable for customers”.
Bonus Takeaway: Here’s A Likely Reason Why You, The Expert Started Your Business In the First Place
You probably felt two things very strongly about your past career working for others, even when their business was doing well:
1) Your unique skills weren’t appreciated very much.
2) You felt much more like a cog than a valuable, integral part of the business.
As an employee, I always felt, with very few exceptions, that my managers and bosses treated my work domain as a child’s sandbox that they allowed me to play in. Even while my “sandbox” was connected directly to revenue creation.
Is that your situation, too?
Well, surprise! You’ve already witnessed the “E-Myth” as an employee! You’ve experienced the sensation of being a commodity that the principles of “The E-Myth” teach.
One thing that shouldn’t conclude is your own dream of a small business!
If you’re struggling – then what your business probably doesn’t need is more of your core talent. Get honest with yourself and crystal clear on that basic fact.
Because if you don’t… you’ll have to find a job again. It’s always demeaning to be the cash cow but be considered a lesser person. It’s also quite common when experts like you have to pack it in and find a job.
Bottom line: get objective and honest with yourself about what your business actually needs: more aggressive marketing and outreach, higher customer service standards, better inventory control… whatever it takes.