Who is Captaining your Ship?

When I was 16 years old I worked on the Cape Town docks for a summer. I counted the stuff that the labourers took off ships and packed into railway trucks. I was not the best tallier on the docks, but it was not the kind of job that demanded much skill. And aiming to be better would show up the others and then they would not offer me any cheese whenever a box broke while being loaded from a Dutch ship onto the Orange Express. Surprisingly flimsy, that pre-Internet packaging.

There were a lot of people working on the docks back then. Along with a few lovely ladies. There were awfully friendly until I mentioned my job at which point they would reject my offers of coffee. Snobbish, I thought.

I was reminiscing about this a few days ago as I thought about a question Doc Frank had asked me. The Doc is a friend of mine. We were talking about medical diagnostic tests. You know, like that thingie you buy at the chemist so that your 16 year old girlfriend can wee on it and a big happy face shows with a plus sign? That usually means that somebody is going to get into trouble real soon.

The Doc wondered if such a test might exist for a small business. Maybe something online, he thought, where you plug in four numbers and the site tells you what you need to do to stave off disaster or, less probably, how to rein in the juggernaut that is pouring too much money into your account.

Well, it is one thing to weewee on a strip, I thought, but most of us would not know our ROI from a marmite Salticrax. If you want to take the baby test just drink a glass of water and let physics do its thing.

But trying to get hard numbers from a small business owner is, well, impossible. I have been trying to extract hard numbers from my clients for a while. Tough questions like “what is your bank balance today” or “what are your sales figures for last week” or “how long, on average, does it take for your invoices to be paid”. These are usually met by an embarrassed grin before my hero tells me that he doesn’t rightly know for sure.

If Telkom ran their business like this, we would not have telephones. They might profess excellence, and they might never actually deliver what you want, but they make a whole pile more money than you and I. Combined.

Lets talk about why Telkom makes money offering shyte service and you and I struggle, despite being excellent at what we do. They simple answer is that Telkom has a boss.

A boss is the kind of person we ran away from when we decided to go out on our own. But, and this is the key, the boss steers the ship while you and I dilly dally counting the boxes of cheese. Or scrivening PHP. Or whatever.

The work we do can almost always be done by someone else. I think we can both agree that nobody will do it with quite the style and panache that we achieve, but who cares. Heck, I suspect the boss could even do our jobs if nudge came to wink and we took another Friday off sick.

I think we should get paid differently for each of the two roles we newbie captains of small commerce fulfil. On the one hand, we should be paid a salary for the work we do. A market related wage, I am thinking. If this business we have started cannot achieve that, then we should re-apply at Telkom.

On the other hand, we should be rewarded for our success at running the firm that employs us to do the work we do. Even if that is our own firm. The roles are completely different, as are the risks.

Bill Gates, for instance, does not get paid for his programming prowess even though I am sure he is excellent at it. Anyone using Windows can immediately see that 🙂

No, Mr Gates made his money by steering the Microsoft ship. Rather than try and do everything, he hired people that could each do some of it. Not as well as he could, of course, but well enough to keep his clients happy. His excellence came from his in depth knowledge of his genre, and his guidance of lesser mortals (and who is not lesser than Mr G) towards the excellence he too aspired towards. His prosperity came from his captainship, not from his technical prowess.

You and I, my friend, have been trying the hard way. And as long as we follow that route, we trudge a road paved with good intentions. But not lined with gold.

Let me share how I see it from my side. If ever there was a personal business it is mine. My clients have been with me since, well, before the Internet, and some go back to the Great Trek. You would not imagine that someone else could replace me in these relationships. It would be like waking up tomorrow morning with your mother in law in the bed next to you, beard and all.

But, there is a way to solve this issue. First, stay focused on each relationship and find a few other folk to do bits of the work. Even though they cannot do it as well as we can, of course. Each new relationships starts from scratch, and we forget that. The strangers we have yet to meet do not know us from a box of muesli, and as they arrive they could be welcomed by a younger version of us, someone trained to do what we now do. Their expectations would be different, and so would their experience, but it would be just as good for them.

It does not matter what it is that we each do. The real money, the future, lies in captaining the ship. It might still be a dinghy, but we are the captains. Employ a few people to paddle and soon we will be steering our own Viking longboats to Scotland. Otherwise we have achieved nothing other than replacing an awful boss with a no-boss.

Good luck, fellow voyager.