Coping With Burnout

Cabinetmakers discuss how to keep interest alive and productivity up while juggling multiple roles in a one-man cabinet business. March 12, 2009

I have a small custom cabinet shop (just me) and I'm finding it harder and harder to stay out in the shop and work. I do all the drawing, bidding, ordering, and talking to the client. I give full render drawings and change them at least 4-5 times for the client. This is to try and keep the job flow going. While I'm doing that, the job in the shop stays dormant. I like what I do, but it is starting to get old. I'm in a slump and can't get out. Any advice?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor T:
Isn't it obvious? Hire someone to build in the shop while you do everything else. If the work is there, your revenue will increase and you will make more money, assuming you price the work appropriately. If you prefer the shop end of the business, you may be able to outsource sales or drawings, but I think it's much harder to pull that off. If you don't have enough work at any one time to justify hiring someone, then you're pretty much stuck doing everything. The Business and Management Forum on this website will be helpful in many matters pertaining to hiring, training, etc.

Regarding your website, it shows a lot of fine work, but you should remove some of the less fine work/photos, and especially the "dog doors." (Doesn't mean you can't continue to install dog doors for people; I just think it's an odd item for a custom woodworking business.) And there are basic grammar and spelling errors you should correct, as these detract from an overall professional presentation.

From the original questioner:
Thanks. Yes, the work load is too small to hire someone. That is my main goal - to have a Thermwood and a crew. In regard to the dog doors, these doors were not just installed, they are custom made from solid mahogany. So it is just a service that is offered.

From contributor H:
The drawing is taking up too much of your time. If you are still doing them by hand I would suggest getting a drawing program. Redos are a matter of minutes, even seconds, once the first drawing is done. Even that only takes a half hour or less depending on the detail of rendering. Pricing can be integrated into your drawing program. Ordering can also be. However, how long does it take to order material? 10-15 minutes? Via phone/fax/internet? Get a part time helper. One or two days a week. Not so much for actual building but for company and cleaning up and keeping everything in order in the shop. Extra hands lifting/delivering/etc. Last, take this week off. Work on your shop, not work. Do something for yourself. None of your clients will miss you from now until Jan 2nd. And you'll feel better. When you do, everything will be easier.

From the original questioner:
Thanks. I do have a drawing program and it is one of the best on the market (eCabinet) but it takes a little more than a couple of seconds to redo a drawing. I think I will take your advice and take some time off and enjoy the holidays.

From contributor R:
You are suffering from a classic small business conundrum - trying to work *on* your business as well as *in* your business. You say that you are too small for another man, but is that really true? How much is it costing you to keep all that equipment idle? How much work are you not landing because you do not have the time? I recommend that you read "The E-Myth Revisited" by Michael Gerber. It is an excellent study of this problem, and may help you figure things out.

From contributor J:
I've experienced the apathy about going into the shop and working just like you describe. I call it the "dreads." That's a bad road to go down and you need to get off of it quickly.
I agree that a second set of hands, if only part-time, would be a big help for you. Two people can do three times the work that you can do alone. Once you see production pick up, you'll also see a corresponding increase in your morale. It's encouraging knowing work is being accomplished in the shop while you're doing those non-production tasks (meeting with customers).

I've used eCabs quite a bit and got fairly proficient with it. Then I downloaded a trial version of Cabinet Solutions and never looked back. I lease it now for $100 per month. It's so much easier to use; the simplicity and lack of aggravation alone make it worth the money spent. It literally does take just seconds to redraw a job. Contributor H's advice is sound. Take the holidays off and recharge a little.

From contributor A:
"Two people can do three times the work that you can do alone."

I don't know about that. Better to figure that the first hire will produce half of what you can produce when working uninterrupted, the second man will bring you up to two thirds as much as you can do alone, and three men will double what you did by yourself. Unless you really take some care in hiring and can afford to pay top wages, even when there is nothing for the men to do.

From contributor J:
Working uninterrupted is the whole point. You can't, or at least I can't. When I hired my first employee (who was an excellent employee from the start) and taught him to build drawers, break down plywood, and build boxes, my production at least doubled. When I taught him how to build frames, it went way beyond that. Add to that the extra set of hands when loading/unloading, and there was no question the extra help was a force multiplier. If an extra body only added two thirds more to the yield, then I'd think I'd hired the wrong person. In any case, when you're a one man show and you meet with customers, order materials, pay bills, etc, nothing is being produced. That's a stress multiplier and ultimately the reason the questioner made this post.

From contributor W:
I had to walk out in the parking lot many times and pray, "God help me fall back in love with that business before I get back in the door!", and after 26 years I am glad I did.

From contributor Z:
I agree that a helper is needed, but not for the woodwork, at least not yet. I would find a broom pusher first, twice a week part-time. No experience is needed, pay fairly well to keep the person interested. This person can be a student or senior. When the shop is clean, freshly painted, and all the machines are tuned up/oiled, it will feel like a big relief to you. This person may be a self-starter and keep learning more, which is exactly what you will need next. However, if not, no training time has been lost.

I am a one-man shop too and just lost a good sweeper, although not good at woodwork. He was getting old and has retired back to his government disability pension only. He needed a cane to walk, but loved the broom! Some folks need to feel useful and are lonely.

I am looking for a new sweeper. Have tried hiring woodworkers, but as has been said, not enough increase of production and too much expensive training time. The helper made all the money. With just a sweeper I made more money.

Also, start finding other shops for some of the basic and boring stuff. Your drawings will make money for you through other shops. Be prepared to rework some of this outsourced work, but it will still pay off. All my drawers come from Quebec now and doors from the Mennonites.

These steps should free up your time or increase your production. Have everything delivered. Learn to use what you have on hand. I don't deliver, install or go on-site anymore. Got rid of the gas guzzler van. The new shop has 4 large assembly tables with the machines around them. Assembly room is key to an efficient shop.

I like to work on the shop when I feel business stress, but do stay away from it for a few days. My hobby is painting and the shop office is also my studio, so it is hard to stay away.

From contributor R:
I am going through the same thing. Your mind is probably being pulled in so many different directions that it is affecting your concentration. I haven't found the solution yet, but a friend of mine does some work on night shift. At least then he is not hindered by phone calls. If you find the solution, please let me know.

From contributor F:

Yes indeed, my hat is off to those who are good at dealing with hired help and making them profitable in a small shop. Every time I have tried to make a go of that I spend so much time training that the rest grinds to a halt and production as a whole goes down.

As far as being burned out goes, all I can tell you is when you feel like this, you have to just keep plugging away. If you keep after it, the weight of the world will start to leave your shoulders. Think of what you have accomplished more than what still needs to be done.

From the original questioner:
Thanks to all of you for your input. I guess it's kind of like having a cold - you just have to let it run its course.

From contributor Z:
Be careful not to make bad decisions when you are in that state of mind. I was tempted to go and work for one of my retail furniture clients exclusively... very bad idea! They would have squeezed me for more production, less money, and bullshit like deep discounts for the owner/accountant/buddies. Keep a variety of customers. Always, always look for new and better business... Never stop.

From contributor Y:
Why don't you try to hire a part time apprentice? You can mold and shape another person's skills. That person can push a broom, tidy up the lumber racks, clean and tune the shop equipment. If you find the right person, it will work out fine. If you get the wrong person, you will be able to tell on the first day. Remember, as woodworkers we need to pass on our skills to the next generation. This is not being done anymore and that is why we have to compete with illegal immigrants and small kids in Asia.

I tried to go with my own shop full time and I quickly learned that a good woodworker does not mean good shop owner. You have to wear so many hats at one time. When you are in the shop cutting a tenon for a table apron you are worried about making the utility payment on time. What kind of life is that? I work for somebody else right now, and I am spending a lot of time on these threads and learning the business management end. There is a wealth of information available for free just by reading the forums.

Just one example, do you want to be known for dog doors? Or fine furniture and cabinets? It's all about marketing. Sure, don't stop making dog doors, but don't brag about it. When people know you as a person who makes a product that has no rival when it comes to quality, the next problem you will have is not being able to find enough people to help you in the shop.

From contributor R:
We are not losing out because we are not training new people or passing on the craft. They do it cheaper, not better. Bottom line, people want things cheaper. Higher price does not mean better quality either. Doggie door? If you made it, be proud - it is a skill you have. So we are not lawyers or doctors, we probably will not get rich, but we make things to make people's lives better. One piece at a time.

From the original questioner:
Thanks. Yes, I agree at least in my area people don't care about detail - they just look at dollar signs. I bet over half the people could care less if the drawers are dovetailed or just nailed together. It's a shame the way our craft is going.

From contributor D:
Thank you to everyone for posting. We are a small cabinet shop (myself and 2 part time high school boys). It has been extremely tough starting out (started Nov. 2006) mainly balancing work and down time. Actually there has been none since the inception. I am not married and no kids, so I work a 6 1/2 day - 12 hour work schedule. I have had 3 dates in the last 2 years (yeah, hard times) which means every waking moment is spent here at the shop. I own my tools, land, building, and have no outstanding debt. I look at it like this - if I can buy a tool that will save me time, that will make up for the lack of manpower.

As for the personal side of my life, that will come when the business stops running in the "red" and starts running in the "black." I have only received 3 paychecks from the business (less than $1000.00). But then again I feel one should crawl before they walk, hence me putting 91%-95% of profit back into the business. But when I feel like I have a bad job or life stinks, I remember my last job (government contractor working/living in Iraq). Then I think well, maybe my job/pay/life is not so bad - at least I am not living in a tent in Iraq, shaking out my boots every morning to get rid of the scorpions, or running to the nearest bunker/shelter when I hear a siren go off and praying this mortar does not have my name on it. So yeah, my life/business may be a little stressful and overpowering right now, but at least I am not getting shot at!

From contributor W:
On a side note... way back when I went on a date with a pretty cool girl who had a real steady job (you know, the kind with good health insurance), we went to a local restaurant and saw several of my customers as we moved to our table. During introductions many expressed their gratitude and how much they were enjoying their kitchens and such. After eating a bit and telling me about her dad, the closet hobbyist, she asked "What do guys like you do for retirement?" So I joked, "well, have you ever been to a craft show?" She never went out with me again.

From contributor O:
I have been a one man shop for over 27 years. The burnout you speak of is a real cycle for me. Sometimes I love what I do and other times hate it. Our attitude can fluctuate as can our productivity. Accepting the right kind of jobs seems to help my attitude, but in these thin times I probably won't turn down too much - we need to stay alive.

Getting out of the shop even for a weekend or an hour or two in the afternoon can be a breath of fresh air if we allow ourselves to. I'm still working on that. Providing for my family certainly is an honorable reason to do work even if it is not a jewel of a job. It keeps me going. The alternatives are grim.

I only use help on delivery, loading and unloading. I have had many part timers and a few full timers and by the time you teach them enough to make you money, they are gone. Having a helper to sand or clean up may take some stress off, but I almost never find anyone to care as much about my business as I do.

From contributor S:
I was in your same shoes and what helped me out was getting all my parts outsourced from Cabinet Components. Because of this I get out of the shop on time most nights and can go home and watch mindless TV. Cabinet Components makes all my body parts - drawer fronts, doors, face frames, etc.

From contributor P:
I don't understand the outsource, as that would bring me down more! I too am a 1 man shop, sometimes 2, and that includes delivery and install. I like to design, build and then install rather than put together, get finished, and have installed. There are days when I get overwhelmed and don't particularly want to do my job, but I think it's more because of the solitude than it is anything else. My customers are aware of the fact I work alone and we make arrangements for times that are convenient for both of us, so I don't waste time not getting things done in the shop. When I am finishing is when the next job is being measured, drawn and the takeoff is completed, so I am ready to order after install. I think it gets us all from time to time, and as mentioned, step back, get a breather and admire your work!

From contributor Q:
Hey, back when I was a single guy, selling at craft shows kept me in an unending supply of new girlfriends. Don't knock those craft shows!

From contributor I:
If you are thinking of a Thermwood, I am guessing you are using ECab. I am a 1 man shop that was in the same boat. I set my mind to do or die by Ecab and kept going on it until I could do most kitchens in about two hours. All of my seed cabinets are costed with labour so when I send the renderings and they are accepted, I can price it in a click of the mouse. I outsource all of my box parts by just emailing the file, ordering the doors from the program and waiting 2-3weeks. 1 day in the shop and done. Sounds easy, but figuring out the program was a challenge, but well worth it.

From contributor C:
I have seen many of your posts on the eCabinets software forum and in my opinion, you are wasting a whole lot of time with that software, time you can put to better use doing something else. A whole lot of successful one-man cabinet shops get by just fine, never ever having to submit drawings to clients, other than the most basic of plans.

A lot of those successful shops with CNC do the same, using the machines and software internally, to speed throughput, but don't feel they need to waste their time on 3D render submittals. And 2D submittals are only needed when doing commercial work. Few homeowners and few builders require them. You have overburdened yourself with the software, obsessing over being able to render everything in detail, and it is simply not needed. Make more sawdust and fewer mouse clicks. Unplug the computer for a while.

A friend of mine makes a wonderful living doing one of a kind commissioned furniture pieces, and he only does crude hand sketches to show clients what is going to be built.
Reputation, samples, references, job photos, and how well you can project yourself and your ideas when doing a proposal, all do far more than any computer rendering ever did.

From contributor P:
In regard to the drawings vs 3D renderings, I have never built a house or a set of cabinets that were not modified and end up different than the plan/drawing. I ask the customer to draw me some square boxes to get me started so I know where they are headed and from there I grab the pen and paper and sketch out an idea. We go over it, make adjustments if needed, and in most cases I am told what is most important to them and I am free to create after that. I have yet to have someone complain and as you can see it only takes a few minutes for the drawing.

From contributor K:
I am of a different opinion. I think the time you spend "obsessing over every detail" is worth it. This time planning the job during the design phase is time saved when you start construction. Using detailed 3D drawings there is no question what your job includes or looks like. On top of that, you then have an accurate cut list and bill of materials. Building is the easy part. Besides, I never had any talent for sketching, so I have to use the software "crutch". The trick to fending off burn-out is to get paid for all your efforts. Designing as well as building. Many customers now save the money of an interior designer by using the cabinetmaker for this service. It is okay to provide this service, but you must charge for it. 2009 might be a great year for me to start doing that.