Getting Off the Treadmill

Advice for a one-man shop about creating a little free time in your life. April 4, 2011

I've been building cabinets by myself for about ten years now. Most of those years have been rather stressful. The first couple of years went pretty well because I was working for one contractor and the scheduling seemed to work well. When I was done with one of his jobs I went on to the next one. Now he is about 1/4 of my work and scheduling is a real chore. I have a difficult time keeping up with everything and keeping everyone happy. My work schedule is typically 6 to 7 days a week, and I routinely miss out on family activities because I have to be in the shop trying to make deadlines.

I'd like to work 5 days a week, maybe 45-50 hours, and be able to have weekends with my family. How do you do this? I'm feeling burnt out, and am sick of working in the shop.

I build custom cabinetry in an 1,800 square foot shop next to my house. Have any of you taken on a partner, or found someone to collaborate on larger projects with? I do not want to take on an employee.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor R:
As someone who is in a similar boat - one man shop, been in business eight years and faced many of the same struggles - this is all I have to offer. Pick your priorities and be honest. For me that means working more so that my wife can be home with my young ones and just doing the best I can. I know people who don't work for themselves and don't work the hours I do, but they are just as stressed and tired. Maybe because they can't take as much pride or have as much freedom of direction in their work life. I don't know. There are times when owning a business just sucks and there is no way around it except to take a little time away and realize the world is not going to fall apart without you. And if your true blue customers leave you because you were three days late, well, they were probably close to leaving you anyway, as they weren't as true blue as you thought.

Realize that you can't have it all in this world... at least 99.9% of us. Those that say they can are usually on vacation with their fourth wife. By that I mean very, very few people can keep every aspect of their life in perfect balance, and just by your post you are doing better than most.

Take three days off and get a fresh perspective... Hell, I might do the same! Lastly, a partner is nothing more than an expensive employee. Please don't go down that route.

From contributor J:
Another thing you can do is slowly raise your prices. Do it 5% at a time. You won't win every bid, but those you do will be more profitable. In other words, work less for more money.

From contributor I:
If you're not already, consider outsourcing wherever possible (doors, drawer boxes, finishing, installs, etc.). It can be a tremendous aid to work flow, with the added benefits of having set costs and delivery dates at the start of the job.

From contributor O:
I've been doing this for 35 years, 20 of that in a shop next to my house. The schedules are yours, no one elseís. Get a calendar and fill it out for a 5 day week. Saturdays can be for screw ups and replacing days off during the week. First up with a deposit is first on the calendar. Be realistic. Donít tell people what they want to hear, tell them what itís going to be, barring unforeseen circumstances. You should get months of lead time with new construction and remodels; just need to know thereís a lead time involved. Someone elseís bad planning doesnít translate into your emergency. As was mentioned, outsourcing is an amazing way to help with scheduling. If you haven't already, add that to your can do list.

From the original questioner:
I buy my doors, and make the rest. The part I'd love to sub out is the finishing, but in my area that just is not possible.

I often feel like I'm playing catch up to everyone's schedule. We need the cabinets on such and such a date, that's no problem, right? And yes, it's always an emergency. A cabinet emergency! I also feel like if I don't agree to the unrealistic time limit I may not get the job, but then maybe I'd be better off. Thanks for the suggestions.

From contributor S:
Are you charging extra for the rush job ("emergency")? If you have to work overtime to deliver on their schedule, you should be charging for it. Give them a price and a schedule for completion (approximately 6 to 8 weeks from date of acceptance). If they want it completed earlier, they have to pay extra. And as stated above, raise your prices. Do less work for more profit.

From contributor B:
I've learned (the hard way) that there are probably two main causes to your problem. The root is that you simply may not be making enough money; thus you're running jobs packed too tightly in order to overcome this. Second, you may be afraid to turn down (based on schedule constraints) repeat customers/contractors now, because you're afraid of losing all their future business.

Unfortunately, my experience is that you end up losing them anyway when you are so overbooked that you're unable to perform well. I think it is a much better route to just tell them up front that you are already booked, and that it is your policy to never take on work unless you can provide superior service - showing up on time, with the job 100% complete. Then recommend another company you trust. This is not as risky as it first sounds because they will respect your integrity and will take you whenever you're available for their work because, when they are lucky enough to get you, you never let them down. The best part is that you are viewed as a hot commodity, and you get to keep a good name!

To make more profit per hour, you might try bringing in part-time helpers for just one day per week, but the secret is to really have everything set up so you can get the most out of them - to create a perfect profit-storm.

Lastly, perhaps try scheduling by a dollars per day metric (last year's total sales divided by number of shop days) - it is remarkably accurate for a small shop. Then add a one-day-a-week buffer, but adjust the schedule according to if the buffer is shrinking or growing.

From contributor M:
Contributor B, thank you for your post - very insightful. Would like to hear you expand on your "dollars per day metric" and scheduling. Thanks.

From contributor J:
You mention you would like to outsource finishing. Find a door supplier that does finishing as well. I use They will finish my doors, custom parts, cut to size and finish veneered panels, and pretty much anything else I need finished. Their finishing costs are not much more than what it costs me to buy the raw materials. I know Conestoga doors does the same and I am sure there are others. Find a good door supplier who can do your finishing. Finishing is always a major bottleneck, so if you can eliminate it, you will free up a bunch of time.

From contributor L:
Back when I was a one man shop, I suffered the same problem. Worked long hours and couldn't get ahead. I started keeping track of the time I spent doing everything. At the end of a year I went over all the jobs, assigned total time and costs. Turned out there were some types of work that just didn't pay. I increased the prices I charged for the poor pay work and much of it stayed with me. What went away gave me some free time. I quit doing finishing with lacquer and only finished expensive small projects. There are some people that feel they deserve special consideration but they usually can learn to deal with reality. Those that canít should become your competitorís customers.

From contributor B:
My scheduling system is very simple, but it still took me 20 years to think of it. But here it is: Let's say I did 200k in sales last year and did it in 48 weeks, or 240 shop days. This would average out to $833 of work per shop day. So, if I sell a normal 10K kitchen, it would follow that it will likely take my operation 12 shop days to complete it, based on historical fact.

Of course there are exceptions such as occasional jobs requiring an abnormal ratio of labor cost to material cost (or visa-versa); but these odd jobs sort of jump right out at you, and you can easily bump the calendar days a bit up or down accordingly.

Turns out that most of the work we small shops sell is quite predictable in dollars per shop day metrics - probably because we use predictable formulas to calc the bids, and normally use materials of a similar price tier - per our typical customer demographic.

The daily dollars figure can be adjusted/refined by simply noticing if you are staying on schedule or not, given the current ability of your operation. If you end up not liking the income left over once you've dialed in the dollars per day amount that works, well - that's another issue altogether.

As far as the time buffers go, there are actually two in place. The first is to add an extra day to the schedule for every four of shop work - that's a 20% time cushion per job (one day out of every five shop days scheduled). It is important to note that it is wise if your minimum pricing allows you to actually use the buffer days and still be able to make enough to cover at least your minimum personal and business bills. But if you do the job in the net days expected, you would hit your true target income - a great incentive built right in.

The second time buffer is to plan in about one week gap between having a job ready for install and the actual install date promised. The idea of finishing a job today that is promised for tomorrow is a cocktail for misery. This one week buffer must be constantly monitored. If it starts to be absorbed, add extra buffer days to the new jobs being sold so you can get that one week buffer back. A shrinking buffer is the warning you need to get more help temporarily or to do something to get back on track. If you have to do this too frequently, your dollars per day metric is not accurate to the reality of your operation - so adjust it and/or your pricing and methods.

However, if the buffer grows to more than the week, simply shift jobs forward or go fishing or fill the days with job extras added or new sales squeezed in at premium pricing.

From contributor C:
I agree with the advice to outsource everything you can since you want to stay away from a helper. I would go the finished door way and it should reduce some stress, very quickly. It's very tough to break the habits a one man shop build, but you have to think as a scheduler and more business than what the one man blow-it-together shop has historically forced you into.

I have two very skilled and competent employees that make us a lot of money, and I really just need to stay the hell out of their way and make sure there is a lot of material on hand. Good luck. Your marriage and family life is much too important to miss out on.

From contributor G:
Regarding your: "I often feel like I'm playing catch up to everyone's schedule. We need the cabinets on such and such a date - that's no problem, right? And yes, it's always an emergency..."

I mostly hate those cute little signs people have on their desks. However, in this case may I suggest that you invest in one that you can hang on the inside of your house door so that you can see it on your way over to the shop... "Your failure to plan is not my emergency!"

If everyone knows you are available on two days notice, then everyone will wait until two days before they need it to order. If they know you need three weeks then they will remember to order three weeks in advance. It is just the way people are. Train them or let them abuse you. For good customers, if it is a real emergency, tell them you will have to put in a lot of overtime for them and charge extra. If you haven't got it in you to say no, and your spouse will take over that task, then let your wife do all the scheduling and tell everyone that she will not let you do it and that they have to talk to her.

From contributor C:
Thanks for that (on the emergency thing)! I forgot to add that, and that this site gave me the insight to work my way out of emergency things. Now I charge dearly for real ones. I used to handle so much. Because of their poor planning I was letting my life slip away. It took six months and I've got a lot of my regulars giving me at least two to three weeks.

From contributor N:
I use a similar method as contributor B does for scheduling. The only difference there might be is I actually set up the schedule based on the labor amount only - materials are not included (except in cases of material availability). The reason I use the labor estimate only for this is that how much the material cost really makes no difference. Since all my work (including contract work) is essentially based on time, this method works well for me.

From contributor E:
I too used to work 60-80 hours per week. A few years ago I switched over to four ten hour days. It worked great for me. I was able to still get my jobs done on time and get three days off per week. But remember to not take on too much work at once and give the appropriate lead times to your customers.

From contributor X:
I have found that setting up a pattern in doing my work, I stop having those incidental things that take extra time to do. I also added these incidentals (time) to the cost of each job. No longer were things done for free. In other words, I tried to work smarter. That coffee cup was not following me around. The answering machine took most of the calls and I set up a time to return calls. I broke habits that I had formed that wasted my time. I gave up smoking, made lists to manage my time. It's a long haul since we're not perfect but time was saved and we accomplished more. We enjoyed more of our personal time.