Taking on Help

      A furnituremaker with a growing workload gets advice on how to hire his first employee. January 2, 2012

I've been working on my own for the last year making high end stand alone furniture, and small runs of cabinetry. I recently secured a new client doing private label manufacturing, and have found myself in the great position of having more work than I think I can handle on time. I have deposits on five or six projects, and a number of bids still outstanding.

I'm thinking of taking on some part time help, but am nervous that this will take up more time than it will save due to high level of complexity of the private label work. I'm also concerned about taking someone on, having them help me clear the backlog, and then having to let them go because work drops off. Thatís happened to me in the past, and it's not the way I want my business to go. Running a business is a really new thing for me, and this Forum has provided so much information - so thank you, and from reading this I know that almost everyone has been in this position at one point. Any advice gratefully received.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor C:
Can you outsource the doors and perhaps some millwork? Have you considered a part time helper like a college student? A knowledgeable part timer or sub can really knock out some work and let you sell and do the more difficult things.

I understand your reservations of hiring full time, but you may need to keep someone on you train. It becomes apparent rather quickly in the process of writing a paycheck if he/she is helping or not. Have you considered hiring on with the upfront commitments that you cannot guarantee work past x amount of time, unless the work keeps coming in? That is how I hired my first employee.

From contributor M:
Looking at your work I'd say that you really do have a challenge ahead of you. It is not easy to find the right employee. If you can afford it a new grad from a true furniture making school might be good. I would recommend you focus on machines and automation. Look for ways to simplify your work so that a less skilled employee can help.

From contributor J:
My advice, in this economic climate, you can't turn work down. If people are into what you have to offer, they will wait. If itís work coming through designers, take it in and pass it out to people you know and trust. There are lots of talented builders in Chicago who may not be in such a good position and would appreciate the work and help you keep things moving without getting overwhelmed. I could give you a few contacts if you need since you are pretty new to the city.

From contributor O:
I find myself in a similar bind. Lots of work at present but there is almost always a slow period after the busy times. The advice I have been given regarding taking on help has been to do so even part time. This would then give me time to focus on getting more work. The advice seems to be sound but I have as yet not followed it because of my reservations about keeping, training, and finding enough work to support a staff and myself. I also run a small shop and donít really have room for two people to work safely together in a small space. So until I move shop Iím in a tight position.

From contributor I:
My employer is in a similar situation. He encountered several projects that he was not skilled enough to build, so he hired me temporarily - that was three years ago. He just hired another guy after looking around for quite a while. He wants an experienced and skilled worker but is unwilling to pay for one. Instead he has a new guy who's background is cabinetry, so he is nowhere near as skilled as I am and as a result he has had to constantly keep an eye on him. Seems he spends more time watching the new guy than doing work himself. If you do hire someone, get someone that you don't have to watch otherwise you won't get a thing done yourself.

From contributor K:
If you have a need for help getting things out the door, a part timer would help, and you can even get in contact with local construction temp agencies, which will free you from the typical employee costs as well (withholdings, taxes, insurance, etc.). This sounds like your scenario.

When you are considering taking someone full-time for an extended period of time, your role begins to shift. With that in mind, I would recommend that you have at least three months (ideally six) wages set-aside before hiring someone full-time. If you do this, you will find it much easier to be able to get things out the door, and you can focus on getting more business, which becomes more of a focus when taking on an employee (keeping the wheel greased).

Remember, taking on an employee also means managing that employee, taxes, withholdings, mistakes, etc. It sounds to me, based on the number of projects you have coming on board, a combination of a part-timer and some outsourcing will keep you moving as you adjust.

From contributor E:
If you need 40 hours of help, hire two part timers. If you need 80 hours of help, hire four part timers. Having more people available than you need means exactly that. Someone will be available when you need them. They will become more competitive and less complacent. Competition is a good thing. As business owners we compete constantly to get the job and then we compete to get the referral. It should be no different for the people who work for us.

This will be a little more difficult from a training perspective but this difficulty will be overshadowed by the fact that now you have more people to select from. People are different and some of these differences are better than others.

Having more people available will also lessen your risk if one should leave. Instead of scrambling to find somebody now to do the faceframes, doors, and drawer boxes you only need to fill out one department. Navy battleships were built with just this theory in mind. The hull is always chambered off in 30 foot increments so if they take a torpedo the bilge pump doesn't have to work so hard.

From contributor C:
Lots of advice, but I'm not sure most will work with furniture makers. Getting temp help with a cabinet background is not going to get you a furniture maker, unless you have a lot of digital fences or a CNC. I started with a helper kind of guy and let him go quickly. Next I hired a guy just out of a tech woodworking school, let him go quickly. I finally hired someone from a cabinet shop, but he made furniture in his spare time. He was the keeper.

When you have to work side by side, and build high quality furniture, you need someone that is already doing that. You will find plenty that say they can do that, or learn how to, but that will cost you a bunch. I suggest you only hire someone that can show you something they have made. You will be able to tell right away if they will fit your style.

Don't be afraid of hiring a gal. They can work some real fine details and tolerances. If you can't find the right person, just be firm about delivery dates, and don't miss them. If the product is right, there still may be enough people out there that will wait. They are getting fewer, but if they won't wait, ask them to check with you next time.

From contributor M:
I actually just hired my first employee last week. He is completely green and his pay reflects that so he doesnít cost me too much. I probably should have hired someone a long time ago. The amount of time that they will save you is amazing with all the little tedious tasks.

I have him sanding parts, spray finishing, moving things around, running to suppliers, etc, etc. Basically all the unskilled work that eats up your days. Fortunately for me, he learns very quickly. Show him how to sand a door, watch him sand a door and correct him as he is doing it, then watch him do another and he has caught on. The same goes with spraying. I have just baby stepped him through each process then sort of set him free while keeping a watchful eye. So far he has been great, but your mileage may vary depending upon the employee.

I found him through Facebook. Made a post asking my friends if any of them were in need of some casual part time work, full-time one week, one day the next type of thing. His name was given to me by a friend. He is fully aware that I have a full time need for the next couple of weeks, then probably just a couple days a week beyond that. Just be open and honest about your requirements and you will be able to sleep at night when you tell them you donít need them for a couple of days.

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