Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Professional Rules For Success

I have learned a few things over the years.  When I started out, thinking I could easily make a living working for myself, I was optimistic and confident that everything would be easy.  The first few years included some real setbacks and quite a learning curve, but I managed to keep it together and build a foundation for a business reputation which has served me well.

I thought it might be helpful to pass on some basic rules of the business for those who expect to follow their own path to success.  I have no illusions that I am like Steve Jobs.  I never had a desire to build the richest corporation on earth.  I just want to be paid for my talents.  Work with my hands.  Enjoy the days at the bench and go home satisfied.  Simple goals.

First of all, you need to know what your talent is.  That means there must be some inner desire to accomplish a task.  Following that impulse you should read books, search the internet (not possible when I was young), visit others in the same trade, and in general gather the basic information needed to execute the job.

From that position you can look for work which you are confident you can do.  Never practice on the job.  Practice on similar work you own.  In my case, I bought broken antiques and fixed them for myself.  In essence, I became the client.  When I was satisfied, the work was done.  Later, as I worked on the property for others, I followed the same goal: do the work as if it were for me.  Never cut corners or try to hide problems.  Do it right the first time.

If you don't have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?

There is one important point about this idea.  Do not price it for your self.  In other words, do not lower the price because you think you would not pay that much.  Remember, you have the talent to do the work.  Your client has hired you because they can't do it themselves.  They have other talents, like making money.  What they think is a "lot" of money is probably not what you think is a "lot".

Learn which clients to avoid and which clients are important by subtle clues.  Obviously, the zip code and neighborhood provide clues, as well as the kind of car parked in the garage.  But, more importantly, listen carefully to their comments and expectations.  Try to hear what they know about the work and what they say about other work they have had.  Are they happy?  Do they have problems?  Are they complaining all the time?  Are they just looking to sue someone?

Seriously, I had one client in the beginning who exhibited all these symptoms and I ignored it.  My job was to repair a broken back on a sofa which was covered in tapestry.  It was a bad copy but I was young and needed the work.  I took the sofa to the shop, pulled back the upholstery on one side and repaired the arm.  It looked perfect and I carefully tacked back the material.  It was one of those difficult deliveries where I had to carry the sofa up a cement stairway two flights around tight landings.  No elevator access.  With some help I managed, except at one point the wood touched the stucco and left a white mark about the size of a pencil eraser.  The client was watching me the entire way.

The next thing I know he refused to pay me.  I took him to small claims court where he won and I owed him a thousand dollars.  The bill for the job was less than $250.  I thought it was a bad decision and appealed to the Supreme court (not the Federal court).  When that case arrived I met him in the hall where he was standing next to the naked frame of the sofa and a black bag full of the stuffing.  He had taken the sofa apart!  He had brought "experts" to testify that I had destroyed the valuable antique.

I knew he was a lawyer, and when I stood up to present my case, I simply said, "Your honor, this plaintiff is practicing law using me as a test case."  The judge looked at him and asked, "Are you a lawyer?"  He said, proudly, "Yes!"  The judge said, "Then I will settle this case in your behalf.  Judgment is for the plaintiff in the amount of one dollar."

I paid him the dollar.  Lesson learned.

When pricing new work, be honest to yourself about how long it will really take.  Use increments like hours, half-days, weeks or months to create a price, using the hourly rate you need to survive.  Include a percentage of surplus time for your profit.  Not much.  Just in case.

I like to compare my hourly rate with that of a Mercedes mechanic.  Their rate is clearly posted in the shop and most of my clients have Mercedes.  They expect to pay that rate to have their car fixed.  They usually do not complain if I charge the same rate.

If you charge a proper rate for your time, include basic materials in the rate.  In my profession the cost of materials is small compared to the time.  Sand paper,  stains and finishes, glue, screws, wood and other materials represent a small percentage of the total bill.  I pay the tax when I buy the materials and I simply charge a labor rate for the job.  That way there is no tax to the customer.

Of course, if the job requires some special material which is expensive, I add for that.  For example, horsehair is costly, so I add that, as well as the final fabric, which is normally supplied by the client.

I always discuss in exact detail what the job requires with the client.  I take the time to explain carefully each step, essentially teaching them how to do it them selves.  After that lecture, they are happy to pay me to do it.

If the project is valuable, I insist gently that they visit my workshop.  I explain that they should know where the work will be done and what kind of a worker they are trusting with their object.  Quite often they don't want to take the time and just trust me, but I still recommend it.  Once they see my work shop they are clients for life.

Unless the job is quite expensive, I do not take deposits or payment in advance.  I need the motivation to do the work and get paid.  I tell them to pay me when they are satisfied.  If they are not satisfied, don't pay me.  I have seen jobs which were ruined by poor workers, and when I ask the client what they did, they always say, "I just paid them."  That is wrong, but people are too embarrassed to say that they are not satisfied.  By telling them not to pay me if they are not happy, I eliminate that concern.

I get paid in full upon delivery.  I accept cash, check or all credit cards.  It is a business.

Give a conservative time frame.  Normally I put on the invoice something like "2-4 weeks" or "6-8 weeks" or another date which we can agree to.  Establishing a working deadline notifies the client when to expect it back and when to pay me.  If I am earlier, fine.  The most serious problem in my business is when pieces sit around for a year or more.  That is never profitable and just bad business.

The invoice is a contract between the client and the worker.  It must clearly define the details of the job and the price.  If you do more work then on the invoice fine.  The price doesn't change.  Never do less than the agreed work.  Pay attention to small details and listen to what the client wants.  If you see a scratch ask them if that bothers them.  If not, why worry about it?  If they point out a small defect, note it on the invoice so that you can repair it.  It might not bother you but they will instantly look for it when you deliver the job, since it is a problem for them.

Pay attention to the placement of the furniture in the home.  If a highly polished table is directly in front of the window, every imperfection will be seen.  Charge more to do a perfect job.  If the rest of the furniture in the house has a dull waxed finish, recommend the same.  Try to restore the object, within reason, to meet both the expectations of the client as well as respecting the original intentions of the maker.

I do not charge for delivery within 150 miles, and I do not charge for estimates or written proposals.  I consider that part of the business service.  If I do not get the work, that is a learning experience.  However, I always get the work.  As far as deliveries, I can bundle most of my deliveries into one day a week and do them all at the same time.

Buy a good delivery truck, which is enclosed, like a van or Sprinter.  Buy lots of moving blankets.  Wrap the furniture carefully in blankets and tie securely.  You do not want to be responsible for causing damage.  Your job is to repair the damage caused by other inconsiderate movers who are careless.  When I was young, I had the great idea to approach moving companies and offer my services as a repairman.  I thought they would happily pay me for a couple days of instruction to their men so that clocks, display cases, highly polished furniture, and other pieces could be moved without damage.  Even though it would mean less work for me, I was idealistically thinking that I could reduce the amount of damage to fine antiques which was happening on a regular basis.  In every case they refused.  They considered damage a "cost of business."

Imagine if your bank lost some of your money and considered it a "cost of business?"  I mean it's one thing to ask a kid with a pick up truck to move your Hepplewhite dining set, but to pay a professional company to destroy it?  I am not making this up.  I was asked to repair the top of a period dining table in Newport Beach after the moving company delivered it, placed the top carefully upside down on blankets and screwed back the pedestals.  The sheet rock screws they used were long enough to go through the pedestal braces, through the Cuban mahogany top and into the floor.  After all 12 screws were in place they realized they couldn't lift the table.  That was a fun job to restore!

Pay for insurance.  It is important to be professional.  I am insured the minute I walk into the home.  If I break it in the home I am covered.  If it breaks in my truck I am covered.  If I damage it during the restoration I am covered.  At all phases of my contact with the object I am protected.  That said, in all the years I have paid for good insurance I have never had a claim.  Still, if you consider yourself a professional you need to include the cost of insurance in your overhead.

I have already discussed in a previous post how to calculate your hourly rate.  Simply put you need to know exactly how much per day it costs you to be in business.  At the end of the year look at the total expenditures and divide by 365 to get a per diem cost.  Then you need to determine your productivity or efficiency percentage.  If you work 8 hours a day but only 4 of them are directly billable to the client then you are 50% efficient.  So if your actual overhead is $200/day and your efficiency rate is 50% you need to bill $50/hour.  Even though you are at work 8 hours you only are producing 4 hours of billable time and thus get $200.  To improve your situation you have three options: reduce your overhead, increase your productivity, or raise your hourly rate.

Notice that you must earn your overhead every day of the year.  That works if you are not sick or take weekends or vacation time off.  If you miss a day therefore you must double your billable hours the next day.  Otherwise, divide your annual cost of overhead by the actual number of days you actually work to get a different per diem goal.

I worked for many years on a schedule which was every day for three months, then a month off for travel.  Instead of 52 weekends a year, I enjoyed 3 months of travel.  Sacrificing a couple days off work a week is not so painful when you are traveling in Europe or American visiting shops and museums three times a year.

Most importantly, stay in one location, if you can.  Even better, buy your business location.  It is a great investment to own commercial property.  If you manage to pay it off, then you are set for life.  When you no longer want to work you can lease your location and live off the income.

That is my plan.  I already have paid off all my debts, including mortgage.  That is one reason I managed to survive the crash of 2008.  I just don't want to quit working.  I love my job too much.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Life In The Past Lane

I first discovered Google Blogspot 5 years ago, while visiting other blogs that interested me.  I grew up with the early years of television and first thought it would be a great instrument for mass education.  That theory has been proven false.  It's not even a good instrument for news and facts.

On the other hand, with the widespread use of the computer and the birth of the world web, my belief that this could be the instrument for education transmission is restored.  Of course, the web is full of junk and false information, since it reflects the bulk of the world's population, which is also full of crazy people.  For good or bad, there is no real filter (yet) on the internet.

That said, when I first decided to create a blog my goal was not to promote myself but to put down in posts what I thought was valuable information.  I thought that some of my experience would be important for others to use, and in some way, push forward the craft that I love so much.

This is one reason I have not clicked on the "monetize your site" button and included advertisement on my site.  I don't like the web sites that include advertisements and I don't want to promote that concept.  Using the system to make money is exactly why television failed.  This is what gave us "lard ass" reality shows.

One great feature of blogspot is that it provides stats and analysis for me to use.  It is exciting and rewarding to realize that I have had over 300,000 page hits on 240 posts.  It is also surprising that, in addition to readers in the US, I have had significant numbers of readers in other countries.  I descending order: Canada, Russia, United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Australia, Germany, Ukraine and Poland.  Wow!  I have followers in Poland!

This site has averaged 6,000 page views per month for several years.  I guess that, in the grand scheme of things on the internet, this is not a historic number.  However, it makes me feel wanted and encourages me to continue posting as the urge presents itself.

The one feature which I cannot find on blogspot is some kind of index of the posts.  As a traditional book reader, I have always found using the index in the back of the book useful.  It allows me to look up exactly the word or term I am looking for and go to that page.  Of course this site has a "search" button, but, without knowing what the past posts contain exactly it is not easy to find what you are looking for.

Now that it has been 5 years I thought I would take some time and create my own user index.  I have compiled the most popular posts, starting in July, 2010 and up to this year.  Here is a list for you to use, if you are interested.  Each post has the date, title and number of views.  If you find what you want, then use the "search" button to read that post.  I am not going to take the time to link each post. You can do some of the work yourself.  After all, it is my blog and I can do what I want with it.


7/10/10 (First post) I Love Marquetry (240 views)
7/26/10 Sawn Veneer vrs Sliced Veneer (1709)
9/7/10 Hand Tool Workshop (945)
9/28/10 When Is A Veneer Hammer Not A Veneer Hammer? (1543)
9/29/10 Marquetry For All Ages (2787)
9/30/10 ASFM Graduate Student Work (1361)
10/06/10 Working Large Marquetry Pictures (950)
10/10/10 The Assembly Board (1611)
10/17/10 Patrick George Sawing Veneer Video (1326)
11/15/10 La Multiplication Des Chevalets De Marqueterie (946)
11/18/10 What Is A Chevalet Kit? (821)


4/27/11 Toothing Planes And Glue Pots (705)
5/2/11 More Toothing Plane Info (1060)
5/28/11 Veneer Tools: Saw (1722)
5/29/11 Veneer Tools: Hammer (1735)
8/28/11 Restoring Boulle (3611)
10/8/11 Typical Upholstery Project (1907)


1/7/12 Why Use Reversible Glue? (1550)
2/21/12 American School of French Marquetry (1031)
10/18/12 Chevalet Anatomy Lesson (1343)
11/4/12 Typical Marquetry Restoration (2051)
11/18/12 Tambour Glue (3065)


1/4/13  Why Cuban Mahogany? (3511)
2/25/13 Are Institute of Chicago Project (3512)
2/27/13 The History of The Chevalet De Marqueterie (3409)
3/19/13 Simple Things: Glue Blocks (1569)
3/30/13 Simple Things: Dovetails (1279)
4/15/13 LeCount Project (1133)
5/5/13 Paris 11th Arrondissement (1168)
6/3/13 Is It Real? (938)
7/20/13 LeCount Clock Door (1012)
8/9/13 Assembly Board Videos (1332)
8/12/13 Chicago Kitchen Job (1261)
10/1/13 We've Got Nails! (1254)
10/2/13 LeCount Ready For Adoption (1002)
10/23/13 Roubo Redux (1229)
11/23/13 The Future Of American Trades (1008)
11/25/13 The Future Of American Trades (991)
12/14/13 Got Antiques? (1881)
12/21/13 Got Ivory? Got Tortoise Shell? Got Cuban Mahogany? Dalbergia Negra? (1343)
12/27/13 Why Not Period Glue? (982)
12/31/13 Respect The Screw (943)


Although I posted continuously during the year, none of the posts reached the 1000 view level.


The drought continues, as I focus on my work and not the blog.  Not to say that nothing was posted that was important, just that only two posts reached earlier levels:

7/28/15 Chevalet In A Box Delivered! (1606)
9/12/15 WPE at WIA Soon (1214)

The most rewarding feedback I get from doing this blog is reading the comments.  I have always responded to the comments and this information provides me with inspiration for future posts.  I hope this effort to provide a short index of the most viewed topics will create some feedback.

I want to post information which is interesting and informative.  Let me know what you want.