Late Night PC Service was a business I started back around 2003. I had a fulltime job writing software when I started it. My idea was to spend evenings solving hands-on computer problems for people in their homes and spend my weekends building websites for myself or clients. The logo was pretty nice and I liked the amusing mix of risque and nerd colliding in the business name. It was pretty demanding sometimes, wearing all the hats: technician and developer were the roles I wanted. But I knew that I needed to be the bookkeeper, the researcher, the marketer, graphic designer and the copy editor. I knew that because I had an employee mindset.
The Employee Mindset
Late Night PC Service is ancient history. I worked hard, I did the best I could for my clients, and I hustled to try to build a little lifestyle business. It was destined to remain a sole proprietership. I reflect a lot on my first business and when I think about it recently I often consider what I could have done differently. Working as one person it’s clear that there are only so many clients I can handle and only so many computers I can fix with my own two hands. I honestly never considered the possibility of finding another budding computer problem solver, early in their career, who might value the opportunity to work on solving new problems. Since I was already a pretty experienced troubleshooter I could have been a guide to that newbie problem solver. I could have hired them to do the hands-on work while I worked on finding that next client.
When I had a couple websites that I needed to build I quickly got overloaded. I tried to juggle the needs of three or four different sites all at once. I had a pretty great PHP development setup. I blogged about how well my debugger worked and the clever things I figured out to set up my local hosts. I had nice clean staging sites I could show my clients and there were regular backup jobs over rsync to the machine in my basement. It was a pretty slick infrastructure I’d built up. But I still remember spending all of one Saturday learning how to center text with CSS. I was not great at the most common recurring request from my web development clients: “Make my site look like that other site.” The idea never entered my mind that I could hire someone with the right tools to do the layout work quickly and efficiently. If I’d figured that out I could have spent a little money to finish the project quickly and then found more work so I could repeat the process.
When I reflect on these things I feel like I left my corporate job to become an entrepreneur but I didn’t leave behind the idea that someone else would tell me what to do.
Solving problems vs Doing a Job
Employees are hired to perform specific tasks. The employer tells them what to do and when that work is done the employer gives them something new to do. The employee gets to push back on the employer when there’s something messy getting in the way. This makes being an employee sound appealing if you don’t want to have to think too hard about why you’re doing what you’re doing for money. I find myself using the employee mindset when I want an excuse not to address something difficult. Moving further along in a career means solving more complicated problems with less ability to push back on the messy bits. Solving problems is more rewarding than simply doing a job whose steps are clearly enumerated. Solving problems demands autonomy which can feel like a reward in itself.
There’s something out in the ethos that glorifies solo entrepreneurs who go it alone and have to do all the different jobs that are needed in their one person startups. I bought into it pretty strongly when I started Late Night PC Service. The missing part is the idea of scaling your business up, even if your business is small and aims to always be a small lifestyle business. You need some people to work in your business so you can work on your business. Accepting that requires acknowledgement that managing people is real work that takes real attention, thought, and skills that are developed over time. I’m not sure if there are people who are born knowing this but it certainly took me years of iterative learning to fully accept. While I was taking on all the different jobs in my one person startup I wasn’t looking for someone to take over each of those jobs. That prevented scaling and caused my business to fizzle out.
I have a fulltime job now and I enjoy it. But I enjoy because I exercise autonomy to seek out tasks that I’m uniquely qualified to handle. I’ve become much better atuned to the value in focusing in on the projects where I’m needed while mentoring others on tasks I’ve already mastered.
This is the first post in my new blog so it serves as a bit of an introduction and should also give an idea of where I’m coming from. These days I’m trying to use my resources to scale up my impact in my field and make a small difference in the things I’d like to see grow. I hope to share results from a variety of projects as well as my ideas on the world we live in & how to make it better.