Rogue Ink

April 12, 2008

The Clockmaker and the Quicksand: Starting a Business With No Money

Filed under: Entrepreneurship — Tei @ 11:57 pm
Tags: , , , ,

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.

Basically, running a business while in debt is very similar to one of the torments they devised for folks in Hades. Sisyphus or Tantalus.

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.



  1. This so completely describes what being it debt feels like. Even when not chasing the dream of self-employment, the sensation of the quicksand is paralyzing. I look forward to your sharing your efforts to get out of the sand, and turn the clock-work into clockwork. Maybe soon, I’ll be in the same boat. It’s good to read here, and know I’m not alone. Keep up the excellent work.

    Comment by Margot — April 13, 2008 @ 12:11 am | Reply

  2. Hi Tei. Very powerful post. I wish I could pull ya out of there, but of course I can’t. But I will say this (and I hope you take it in the right way :)). You’re a writer, right? Then you should be writing and trying to find people to pay for that talent. That’s it.

    Screw Dreamweaver. Stop trying to learn it and make your own website from it. I’m an animator and was a graphic designer (and am not swimming in debt) and I don’t have the time (or energy) to learn the damn thing either.

    If you really feel you need a website right away (and since you’ve read Self Made Chick’s ebook, I know you know you don’t need to), but if you do, get some cheap hosting, install WordPress on it, get a nice free template and just use PAGES to make yourself a pretty damn good first site.

    Just write the copy and forget the rest. You’ll have a site up in no time, it’ll look great and be good ENOUGH for now. Then when you’re out of the quicksand because you concentrated on the stuff you do best, you can improve it.

    Seriously, sell Dreamweaver if you can and buy some groceries so you have the energy to do what you do best. I write this with nothing but a caring heart…seriously. Think about it. 🙂

    Comment by Karen JL — April 13, 2008 @ 3:14 am | Reply

  3. I think Karen’s suggestion is right on target. One of my regrets is that I worried too much about making everything perfect when I launched my company. Things didn’t start off as well as I planned and BAM – quicksand. Actually, it feels more like quick drying cement…but that’s neither here nor there. The point is, I wish I had invested less in certain areas and just settled for “good enough” until I could afford to show my perfectionist tendencies.

    Anyway, thanks for the post. I know exactly how you feel. Hang in there.

    Comment by David @ PostcardPerfect — April 13, 2008 @ 5:28 am | Reply

  4. Aw, you guys are sweet. I did give up on Dreamweaver, ages ago, it was just a particularly illustrate-able example that I recalled. Other things were harder to describe. But thanks for the advice, it is well taken indeed.

    Margot: You are most definitely not alone.

    Comment by Tei — April 13, 2008 @ 7:17 am | Reply

  5. Aw jeez..and here I was feeling all sorry for you and shit.

    Glad to hear you gave it up. If you’re not going to make a living using it, I say leave it alone. 🙂

    Comment by Karen JL — April 13, 2008 @ 9:37 am | Reply

  6. I have a few things to say. One of them is here: and here’s a taste –

    ‘If someone tells you that “make lemonade from lemons” story right now, you’d want to scream, because nobody is buying the lemonade. You don’t want to hear about rainbows, either, right? You are flat out of ideas, there is no place to turn, no wriggle room, nothing but bad news and more bad news.’

    The second is “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, honey, rich is better.” (Google attributes that to several different people so I’m not going to guess).

    I was able to start my business (25 years ago now) at a very fortunate time: I was already at rock bottom. Seriously, I was making so little money that I HAD to do better on my own.. and I did.

    I can’t tell you how to make your clock tick. I wish I could. I can tell you that a struggling new business needs to be alert for opportunity and flexible in its offerings. I can tell you that you might actually fail: I failed at two other business before this one.

    I’ve seen a lot of people go in and out of business over the years – customers, friends, other folks. I helped some of them find business, I felt sad when some of them failed. From my point of view, the strongest indicator for success was simply the strong desire to be independent. I mean that if they went into business because they needed to make money, they were much more likely to fail than if they went in because they needed to be free.

    I wish you luck – more than that, I wish you happiness, because that’s what really matters.

    Comment by Tony Lawrence — April 13, 2008 @ 12:07 pm | Reply

  7. Tei,

    I’ve been in the quicksand for so long I think I could sell shares in it. The one thing I’ve found that helps with that is a good set of stilts to hold you up. Family & friends.

    Being in the quicksand is almost a given when triplets arrive and you already have one. But I’d rather have them than be on solid ground.

    Tony is right. If you already feel you’re at the bottom, that is probably the best place to start. And if you fail, get up again. Your stilts will be there to help you.

    I can’t say whether this business or the next one will be it – if I could, I’d buy a lottery ticket and give you half of the winnings, as payment for such a clever piece of writing today – but you’ve got more drive than I’ve seen in most people. So you will make something stick.

    I’ll be here, cheering you on.

    Comment by brettlegree — April 13, 2008 @ 12:57 pm | Reply

  8. Oh, one more thing.

    If at all possible, you do not want to ruin your credit – that can affect you for many years. Unfortunately, if you are young, you may not have yet been able to build up the cash reserves that are necessary to carry you through the rough spots that almost all businesses experience.

    Beg, borrow, sell of assets that you don’t need before defaulting or being late with payments. Take a part time job if you have to.. do whatever it takes.

    Most of my life I’ve been able to borrow incredible amounts of money pretty much on my word; more than I really would have been able to realistically pay back. That was because I’ve kept my credit score very high all the time.

    You want to be able to do that because you never know when you might need to. I had to borrow over $400,000 two years ago to cover the purchase of a new home before I sold my old. If my credit had been bad I would not have been able to get that loan, and we would have had to give up on the new property and have hoped to find something as good after selling the old.

    So – work very hard to keep your credit pristine. I know that can be hard, maybe impossible sometimes, but do the best you can.

    Comment by Tony Lawrence — April 13, 2008 @ 10:32 pm | Reply

  9. Very nice post. I linked to it in my blog today for the Innovators-Network in hopes that I could send more readers to RogueInk to read it first-hand for themselves and get a little didactic schooling. Good credit is worth something more than just credit, it’s a reflection of your honesty and ability to live up to a contract, which is priceless in the world of business. Thanks for the great narrative!

    Comment by Anthony Kuhn — April 14, 2008 @ 7:47 pm | Reply

  10. Tony – I know this, I truly, truly do. Which is WHY my bank account is overdrawn. I would rather suck up the overdraft fees than be late on my credit card/student loan payments. Because I have had the experience of leaving for a three-month-long camping trip and forgetting to put the student loans on autopay, and coming back to a pile of letters that tell me, in essence, I am screwed in a big, big way. Never again.

    Anthony – Thanks for the link! Always appreciated. I went and nosed around your site a bit – I’ll do some more when I haven’t a deadline looming. Thanks for coming around!

    Comment by Tei — April 14, 2008 @ 7:57 pm | Reply

  11. its 8am PST, I’m at work, but you haven’s posted? WHere is my morning ray of light?

    Comment by The Monsters' Mama — April 15, 2008 @ 3:45 pm | Reply

  12. Oh, wow. Give a girl a minute, she’s ill. I just posted something for you. I’ll get back on schedule by tomorrow, I swear. Thanks for the love, though!

    Comment by Tei — April 15, 2008 @ 3:57 pm | Reply

  13. Yes.

    That is the extent of my intelligent contribution to this discussion. Just, yes.

    Comment by Naomi Dunford — April 16, 2008 @ 6:21 am | Reply

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