A friend of mine ran a small business for about seven years, and I used to work for him until I got brave enough to try it myself. Why did it take me seven years? Because being that close to someone running their own business is agonizing to behold. Every day, he had this frantic, desperately tired, disbelievingly hopeful expression on his face, like a guy hallucinating an oasis in a desert. Sometimes he would grasp a beer between two hands as if it was the only thing holding him to earth and recite these long, mechanical dissertations on how his friends were no longer his friends, even when they were. Watching someone slowly descend into madness does not generally awaken the desire in me to go find out what they’ve been smoking so I can have some. That’s just me.
Having witnessed his madness, though, I have some idea where mine is currently coming from. It’s a very specific problem, and because I like metaphors more than is entirely normal, I call it the Clockmaker and the Quicksand.
If you’re just starting a business, you are a clockmaker. Your business is a clock. More specifically, it is currently clock parts, cogs and springs and wheels. To make this clock, you have a series of small, minute tasks that must be accomplished to make it run properly. All of these small, minute tasks require your intense and undivided attention, and if you haven’t done them before, they may require re-doing many, many times. It’s a lengthy process, clockmaking, and unless you are extraordinarily skilled, the clock will not start ticking for a long, long time. Patience is the watchword of clockmaking.
Business running is hard enough if you are only a clockmaker. It is even harder if you have the quicksand problem.
If you are in debt and have unreliable or insufficient income, you are stuck in quicksand. The quicksand is a constant pull on your mind. You worry about it all the time. It is slowly, slowly dragging you down, and if you devote a great deal of effort to it, you can sometimes wriggle your way a little bit further out of the quicksand, but you cannot pull yourself fully out of it without far more resources than are currently available. You don’t sleep as well, you don’t have as much fun with anything you do, because you know the quicksand pulls you a little deeper every time your attention wanders.
That crazed, wild, desperate, mad look in my friend’s eyes? That is the look of a clockmaker, trapped in quicksand. I have that look now. I make people passing by me on the street concerned. They all seem to have the vague idea that the charitable thing to do would be to help me, but they don’t know how, and they all have their own issues, and a clockmaker in quicksand is not something you see every day.
A day in the life of a clockmaker stuck in quicksand looks something like this:
Pick up tiny little tool and begin to twist one little cog into place. The quicksand pulls you down. You try to focus on placing this cog correctly, but your hands have begun to shake and you can’t maneuver the tools. You know that you must finish the clock. But you can’t focus. The quicksand is terrifying. You grab an overhanging branch and pull yourself upwards. This exhausts you, and you are still mired to the waist. You have to rest. You wake in the morning and you try to work on the clock again, but you’re afraid of the quicksand, and you only get the cog placed before you expend all the rest of your energy pulling yourself out of the quicksand again. You make progress on your clock, but it is long, and slow, and grueling, and it seems as though it will never be done.
Running a small business with no money works like this. You buy Dreamweaver CS3 and a manual to help you run it. You try to study, but your bills are due and your realize your bank account is overdrawn. You work your tail off to get enough money to pay those bills. Two weeks later, you go back to Dreamweaver. You realize that you don’t understand it well enough to follow it. You buy a manual, and a domain name. Your bills are due. Your bank account is overdrawn. You work for another two weeks. You create a home page. The time you spend creating the home page costs you so much time you don’t work enough to earn your usual income. Your bills are due. Your bank account is overdrawn. You work so much to earn the money to cover your overdraft fees that you can’t spend any time writing your own website copy. It’s four months later and you’ve made miniscule improvements in your business, and you’ve been stressed the whole time. You can’t sleep and you’re seriously considering working for a sex-talk hotline. You wish you didn’t have morals. You wish you had a fairy godmother, or a trust fund. You continue to slowly descend into madness.
The thing about running a business is that, theoretically, when the business gets up and running, the business will generate enough money to keep you out of debt. It’s as though the clock is the magic key to your release. You finish making the clock, and you are magically no longer mired in the quicksand. Now, you just get to sell your clocks for money, on solid land, and maybe get married and raise tiny clockmakers. Like you do.
I have no helpful suggestions on how to cease to be a clockmaker in quicksand, except to say that if you can avoid it, it would be wise. That being said, don’t let the fact that you’re in quicksand deter you from being a clockmaker. If you’re miserable on dry land, you’re still miserable. At least in the quicksand you have some hope of success.
A desperate, mad, crazed sort of hope, but still. Hope.