To Own Or Not To Own, That is the Question.
"WOULD I BE BETTER OFF OWNING MY OWN BUSINESS?"
Every workplace has its pros and cons, regardless if you own the business or not. Sitting down and making an honest list of what you are looking for is the only way to know what can and can’t be changed or accommodated in your current position in order to fulfill your ultimate career goals. Right now, before reading on, take a 2-minute break and write down 5 things that you want from your job and 5 things you don’t want — these things could be physical, financial, emotional, or mental. You might need more challenge or want fewer responsibilities; maybe you want to specialize in something or maybe you want to change positions; perhaps you’d like to make more money or you’d prefer to work fewer hours. The goal of making this super short list is to help you start articulating who you are for yourself - because you can’t ask others to do that for you.
Not everyone can or should own their own business - that's not being mean, that's being honest. Hell, most small businesses and self-employed laborers will forever question if they should have gone out on their own, even if they are successful; it’s more work and in some sense it’s less freedom! And, that's the thing we all forget about when we feel stuck in a shitty job. Owning your own business, having your own shop, isn't really about making more money, having a flexible schedule, or doing things your way - because maybe you won't make more money, maybe your customers will be more demanding, and maybe your way isn't the right way. The grass isn't always greener - but then again, you don’t have to be miserable to make a living. Getting to know what your ultimate career goals are will help you navigate though tough days, weeks, and years; it will also save you from making all-or-nothing choices that will land you further from your career goals.
Here is my best advice - it's advice that I received from a variety of well known repairers and builders: Sit down with a cup of coffee, or beer, or water- whatever libation gets you going- and write out a list of the Pros and Cons of your current job. Then walk away from it for a few days. Nothing you write on that list is too silly, it's just how you feel. Then, for the next part, you have to be really honest with yourself, because if you aren't you will never achieve what you want. Start by going down the Pros and Cons list and see how you have helped prolong or change each thing listed about your current job.
A Con that I can almost bet is on everyone's list is “I don't make enough money”. But, you also need to ask yourself, "What have I been doing for the shop or in the shop to necessitate a raise?" Do you grab a handful of business cards right before you head out the door to a concert, so you can network and pass them out, bringing more customers into the shop - and more money?! Do you sit down with management and present ideas on how to grow the business in ways that won't cost them any money - proving to them you are willing to invest your time in their financial investment?! Do you take the time to organize your repair queue so that you can be the most efficient - allowing you to be more focused, get more work done, and improve shop numbers?! THESE ARE THE THINGS YOU HAVE CONTROL OVER WHEN YOU ARE REPAIRING IN SOMEONE ELSE'S SHOP. These are some of the changes to make in order to prove your worth. These are also the things you have to do when you have your own business, regardless of whether you want to or not.
Keep in mind, none of us make enough money. This is a career path that has only been recognized as an actual "job" - let alone "career" - in the last 30 years. Every labor-heavy career struggles with pricing and payment because it isn't tangible and a lot of people have marketed guitar repair as "magic" - meaning it's easy, and it didn't require you to struggle to fall asleep because you could't figure out the damn buzz you've been chasing down the fretboard. So, just realize you aren't the only one feeling screwed with finances.
Now, with that being said, if you really feel like your payment is unfair, I suggest you keep a log of what the company charges for your work, how long the job actually took, and what you make. Take a moment to do a little research regarding the shop’s square footage and what that costs the company, as well as utilities, supplies, parts, and health care/benefits (if applicable). Keep in mind, it is easier for business-minded folks to think in years because of the ebb and flow of business - that's just how it works. A quarterly look is good, but the data for an entire year is more concrete. Your goal here is to use math and hard facts to prove to the company you work for that you make them more than 40% net profit. That means that with every $60 they spend on paying you, paying rent, paying taxes and benefits, paying all necessary bills including buying supplies, that your labor alone makes them $100 - that's $60 to break even on expenses and $40 to put in their pocket. (These numbers might seem unfair, but do remember that a business is there to make a profit for the owners and investors.) IF you can prove that you make them more than 40% net profit from your labor, and your numbers are gradually trending upward, then ask for a raise to reflect that. Tread lightly, and DON'T threaten to quit unless you mean it - and in that case, it’s probably not working out anyway. (It's like a relationship. If you have to threaten to break up with someone unless they do the dishes more often, then it's safe to say there are probably more things wrong than just who's doing the dishes.) It is important to feel like you are being paid appropriately, and using math is a great way to check. Keep in mind that in labor-based jobs, labor and attached expenses, on average, cost the company 55%-67%. That's why most commission-based positions are offered at a 60/40 split. JUST THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG, IF YOU WANT TO START YOUR OWN BUSINESS.
One of the biggest Pros about working for someone else is a steady paycheck. This Pro should not be taken lightly when talking about setting out on your own. Take time to dive into your financial responsibilities; like me, if you don't have a chunk of money to invest or you don't want to take out a loan, you might need to have a "pay the bills job" for awhile until your business is strong enough to support your lifestyle (namely tool buying!).
I used these Pros and Cons because techs are notorious for not knowing how to appropriately value their worth. At the beginning of our building and repairing journey, most of us swept up someone else's mess, put away tools, and asked a lot of questions - and we considered ourselves lucky to receive any form of payment... money was always nice, but I always enjoyed getting paid with tools more. We were happy to get paid because the knowledge we gained far outweighed any bit of money we could put in our pockets. What I am saying is, if you, as we all do, have a lot to learn, then consider how that might be weighed into your rate. (The Beatles played a shit-load of free gigs before they were ever called The Beatles!) We all have to pay our dues, and having the opportunity to work in a shop under a brilliant mind, or in a shop where you are exposed to new instruments or more knowledge, is always worth a little less pay. So, don't mess up those special opportunities! If you're still struggling to make ends meet, get a lightweight second job! Something you can have fun doing, something that doesn't follow you home - like teaching an art class, or working for an afterschool program, or working as a prep chef chopping veggies on a Friday night. I have done all of these things just so I could keep repairing guitars, and I'm not ashamed.
One of my big Pro/Con list items that has come up a few times in different shops has been continuing education. I am a big advocate! If you find yourself in a shop that might not pay all that well, but you are learning from a far more experienced, much wiser tech/builder - or they pay your way to educational conferences like Symposium, ASIA, or NAMM - that's a great thing! Try to hash things out and see if you can't find a way to stay there, because they are obviously interested in investing in your future - and you won't find that everywhere!
Some final thoughts… It's your life; you have to choose how to live it. Life gets a bit more complicated, although not necessarily harder, when you choose to make a living doing what you love. When you start your own business you do have to push yourself to learn more, to move out of your comfort zone and talk with a shit-load of people, to deal with confrontations, to overcome challenges, to speak simply and kindly about successes. The struggle is always worth it, if that's what you really want... because it is your life. So, live it!