The Crazy Hours of the Sole Proprietor

It's the rare woodshop owner who doesn't work 12-hour days and 6-day or 7-day weeks. February 6, 2007

A typical day: up at 4:30, at the office at 5:30, paperwork till 8:00 - 8:30, at the jobsite usually installing or doing punchout till 3:00 - 4:00, then one appointment after, usually home by 5:30 - 6:00. Just want to know if this is a standard day for anyone else?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor M:
Typical for me too... don't know if it is worth it, to be honest. It makes it tough to spend quality time with my kids.

From contributor B:
That's not atypical in any industry, not just cabinetmaking/woodworking. I've been in IT for the last 20 years and that's about a typical day for me as well. The difference is that I'm working my butt off to make somebody else wealthy, and also have no control over decisions, no creativity, just "come in here and make me some money..." All things being equal, I'd rather be on my own.

From contributor U:
Up at 5, drop the kids off for school by 6:30 (extended day program), in shop by 7am, work like hell until sometime between 5 and 6 unless I have something else (coach boy's soccer team, social organization meeting). One of the reasons I started my own business was so I could spend more time with my family. I've decided they are more important than money. Sometimes I forget that, but I try to remember...

From contributor H:
12 hour day... that's pretty normal. Just don't do it 7 days a week. Take at least one day and don't even go to the shop. None of your clients will fall ill or die.

From contributor K:
Come on, guys. Being self employed is a breeze. You only have to work 1/2 a day each day. The biggest challenge is deciding which of the 1/2 day it is going to be... the first 12 hours or the last 12 hours!

From contributor T:
I've had a small business since 1990 and the hours can be tough, although I believe worthwhile. However, I made myself a rule at the very beginning, to save the weekends for family and with few exceptions, I stick to it.

From contributor L:
Up at 5:00 am. At desk from 6:00 am until 8:00 am. In shop or on job site until 6:00 pm. Client appointments as late as 8:00 pm. Home by 9:00 pm most nights, unless traveling out of town. Scheduled Mon-Sat. Sundays remain a day of reflection and worry (grin)...

From contributor S:
Up by 8:30 most days, have breakfast, read paper till 9:30. Check out FOX News till 10. Putz around the shop till noon, call buddy for lunch or go fishing for the afternoon. Home around 6, wife has dinner waiting (oh yeah!). Oh, I forgot to say I retired in January.

Yes, I used to put in 12 and 16 hour days also, being self employed for 40 years. You wake up one day and your kids are turning 30, but that's the payback for the six figure salary and the independence of owning your own shop. The alternative is working for someone else for $40K a year, still leaving for work by 7, home by 6 if lucky, doing without the cars, the yacht and the big house, wondering how you are going to pay all the bills.

The truth is, if you really like your job, 12 hours passes faster than one can imagine. You have to make time for family and friends. Look at your day… I bet you spend 10% of it BSing with friends in the industry, surfing the web (like here for instance) and assorted wasted time things. It's never going to be a 40 hour a week proposition, but where else can one retire at 55 with no worries?

From contributor U:
We get to retire?

From contributor D:
Me, I'm up by 6:00, do some reading, in the shop/office by 8:00 or 8:15, 1/2 hour or a bit more for lunch, work til 5:00 or 5:15, then goof off on this forum or other distractions, home by 6:00. Saturdays from 9:30 til 1:00 or so. Occasionally a Sunday am or late night to take advantage of no interruptions to get large estimates pulled together.

The 4 gentlemen in the shop, in by 6:00 or 6:30, break at about 9:00, work til lunch at 11:00, then work until late break at 1:30 or 2:00, then out the door by 3:30 to 4:30 depending on overtime, kids, etc. Saturday as needed to make up lost time during the week or to get more hours.

I used to work 80 hour weeks, but a heart attack at age 49 does help one get a better focus. I enjoy the work more, am better at prioritizing things, and keeping my eye on what matters.

We are in the process of doubling the shop - buying a larger building, more equipment, hired a fellow to help turn phone calls into work, and will add two people in the shop slowly to get them up to speed - more later. After 30 years, most things are predictable. The unpredictable stuff is not worth going batty over, as it will all work out better if you just pace yourself and take some time.

The best advice I ever got? Two things:
"Double your prices."
"Adrenaline is not your friend."

From contributor H:
Contributor S is correct. In a 12 hour day you really work about 6-8. The rest is break, lunch, break, answer the phone, order material, deal with clients coming to the shop, etc. My 12 hour day, still after 25+ years, just flies by. The line between work and play is constantly being blurred.

From contributor A:
How in the world do you get that kind of freedom? I am up at sometime between 4 and 6, at the shop 30 minutes later, work my fingers to the bone until at least 9:00, usually later. 1 hour for lunch and a couple of bathroom breaks. I do that 6-7 days a week. In all honesty, I don't remember the last time I went a whole day without working. I have been on my own for a year and a half now (single too for obvious reasons) and no matter how many hours I put in, I never seem to get ahead, just barely keeping pace. A bit of a double edged sword, but I suppose we all have our cross to bear.

From the original questioner:
I started this thread, and I can tell you this: You are not charging enough and you have not learned how to say no! I can say that with my 12+ hours a day, I still enjoy my business (busy-ness), never work on Sunday, and make an excellent living. I would like to slow down a little now that I am 50.

From contributor A:
I bill myself out at $65/hour. That is about max up here, North Dakota. I could probably stand an increase, but I would like to expand, a couple more employees and equipment, at which point I may not be able to have enough work at a higher rate to keep the shop busy. It is a conundrum. Besides, what would I do with myself on Sunday? Sit around drinking beer and watching football? Please. What fun is that?

From contributor O:
I am up at 7:00, at work by 8:00. Work til 5:00 and home by 5:45. I do bids while I watch TV at night. I have been doing this for 35 years. I have a 6000 sq. ft. building that is paid for and didn't see anything at the IWF that I needed. I work by myself, except my daughter now helps with the sanding about 16 hours a week. My take home last year was about 75k. I am not wealthy, but I live well. There is no way that I would work the hours that are being discussed in this thread.

From contributor I:
I'm curious what folks actually end up earning at these kind of hours. I assume you don't bill for 12 hours per day, otherwise your one man shop would likely be grossing over $200,000 per year without sales tax or materials, which sounds pretty nice! Has anyone done the math?

From contributor S:
To be fair, I think everyone here has to admit that no one working a one man shop is making $200K a year profit. Do the math... that's $100 a day, which is close to $100 an hour. The only way to make those kind of numbers is with additional employees. The best I ever did working alone was about $100K: with 2 extra employees I have made as much as $450K. The employees actually get more production out than the owner since they don't have to answer the phone, call vendors, deal with customers, do the banking, etc.

There have been some recent posts here saying "anyone owning their own business should be making six figures." I think that's pie in the sky in today's world. If you can stay busy by getting most of your work as referrals and repeat business, you can recoup a lot of the lost time spent on sales calls and tons of estimates that never end up as jobs. Owning a small business is a family commitment more than it is a ticket to a big paycheck. Some weeks you see the kids at the shop more than at home.

From contributor G:
The comment that got to me was contributor S's about waking up and his kids had turned 30. One day last summer, I woke up and my son had turned 5. I went out and bought him a 16oz Estwing for his birthday. He is in half day pre-k and spends the mornings with me. Our main job this week was hanging a double French door for his Sunday school teacher. He also took his Stanley 101 block plane to school for show and tell (we decided it would be best to remove the blade). We live in a small rural community with a low cost of living. I work out of my garage, so I have low overhead. I don't ever plan on being rich or retiring at an early age, but I do enjoy what I am doing now and I get to watch my kids grow up.

From contributor N:
M-F 8:00 - 5 :00, after hours by appointment only. I only work late on or around the tenth of each month to pay bills or if a client absolutely cannot come during business hours. I have three shop employees, two installers, myself, one sales/designer (factory cabinet sales), and earn a very good living and have a life with my family. Don't forget this is what it's all about.

I have found that a little bit of exclusivity goes a long way. It never works out if you try to be everything to everyone (learn to say no!). Stick to what you do best and charge the best price you can, not just what it takes to keep the doors open. I am in business to make money, and to allow my family all of the advantages in life that I can afford.

Part of running a business is to hire good people, delegate, treat clients as professionals and charge for it.

From contributor D:
To the original questioner and contributor A: If you are charging $65.00/hr, then you aren't charging for the hours you actually work, or you are grossing well over $300K a year. While it is difficult to charge for sales calls, it is part of the overhead, and needs to be calculated as such. Ditto for banking, shop clean-up, and other non-job-specific costs.

Sometimes the "double your prices" advice really means "charge out every minute to the customer." This is what every other profession does, and the way they keep their overhead paid for. Make sure your sales calls are live leads, and set a tone of quick information gathering and quick response - make your unbillable time efficient and effective, and don't let anything drag on. Speak and measure, etc., with the same efficiency you have developed in the shop. The guy working 72 hour weeks, and netting $30,000/year, is actually making $8.00 per hour, and doesn't own a business, but does own a job. Not a good way to live.

Contributor A, "...Never get ahead." Get ahead of what? Run out of work? You don't want that - with any luck, you will never be done until you say done. Get used to a backlog - it is healthy; view it as almost money in the bank. Take deposits, and it is money in the bank. I have customers that say "Do it when you have time," and I say "With luck, I will never have time - let's schedule it now, or it will never get done."

You both sound as if you have developed a few bad habits as you added the extra responsibility of business-hood, and could benefit from a re-evaluation of your daily efforts. You have the smarts to ask good questions. Stay on the pursuit, and constantly revaluate what you do, and don't be afraid to charge for your life.

From contributor A:
The advice is great, albeit hard to apply. I will bill out 250K this year and I have just got a letter of intent from an architect for another 35K for a job to be finished by Christmas, plus I went three months without a shop and had a trailer fire. I work my butt off and get paid for it. Although I do enjoy it. I was born and raised on the farm and was taught work was something you did, period. I spent yesterday on the computer doing drawings and am doing the same today. I will be in the shop late afternoon/early evening and work until my back hurts. Sleep on my loveseat in the office and get up and do it all over again. My family has to make appointments with me to go see them for family functions. Like contributor D said, schedule it now or it will never get done. I have a backlog of 6 months, which equates out to about 175K. I got lucky and had some good contacts in the industry going into business, so I have always been busy doing the kind of work I want to do. Idle hands do the deeds of the devil, or something similar. I don't think I would have it any other way. I know I should hire a couple of guys, but I can't seem to talk myself into it. I think it is because I don't like babysitting. Anyway, that is my take. Would you look at that, typing this just made me lose $7.00. I need to get back to work.

From contributor J:
It's good to know I'm not the only one doing 12 hour days. I've got two other shops near mine and both are usually closed up 5:00 or so. This is going into my sixth year and the days don't feel all that long, but it does add up by the end of the week. My goal would be ideally to reach the 100k mark as a one person shop. Still not sure if I want to hire on yet; guess I'll cross that bridge when I get to it.

Contributor A, I'm curious, you say you will gross 250k in a year working alone? At that much gross, aren't you making well over six figures personal income? If so, why so little time for yourself? Don't get me wrong, I love my shop! Sometimes my wife thinks I prefer to be here than home, but I have to have my downtime also. I'm not trying to give you business advice (you're doing much better than I am), but be careful you don't burn yourself out. Got to have time for football! Heck, if I can't watch at least one game a week because of work, I'll know it's time for a change. Well, it's about quarter to 8 here, so time to head home.

From contributor R:
I don't want anyone to take this the wrong way, as it isn't meant as an insult.

If you can't earn your living between 9 am and 5 pm, quit and get a job flipping burgers. Wall Street is open 9-5, banks are open 9-5, you should be open 9-5. Now I don't mean this literally, but you should be able to cover you wages and overhead between 9 and 5, (or 7 and 3 in my case). Any work past those hours should be gravy. If you have so much work you can't keep up, raise your prices. Would you rather work 50 hours a week for $50 per hour, or 25 hours for $100 per hour? If you have to work extra hours to cover your expenses, raise your prices. You are only sacrificing your family time. If your market won't bear the prices you need to charge to make ends meet in those 8 hours, either increase productivity, lower expenses, or move. Don't penalize other shops by offering your services at low prices, and don't penalize your family by working long hours. One of the things I love about this business is the flexibility I have. Some weeks I work 8 hours total, others I work 60, but I sure as hell don't work 60 hours every week. I attend multiple trade shows, take time off to golf, ski, and vacation with my family. I am no way a rich man, but I am comfortable and have the time I need to spend with my family. There are too many guys that know how to build a cabinet, but don't know how to run a business. Either learn how to run a business or do us all a favor and get out of the business and get a job.

Again, forgive me if I have offended you, but this post really got me going. My dad was the same as a lot of the posts I read. Either too busy with work, or too busy looking for more work. He now realizes that after he is retired.

From contributor A:
Contributor J, to answer your question, yes, I make six figures. And I earn every one of them. I am not complaining about the paycheck by any means. I worked a 9 to 5 job punching a clock. I hated it. I found myself doing things off the clock just to hang around more to kill time until I could punch in again tomorrow. Like contributor R, my dad was the same, still is. He works about 60 hours/week at the shop where he punches a clock, but only puts 40-45 on his time card (they don't have a time clock, just write on paper).

I don't know what to say. I enjoy work and don't regret not having a life. I sowed my oats when I was younger, now I just want to work. I will be one of those people you read about who died working in his shop and it wasn't until many days or weeks later that the body was found. But I will have died happy.

Been doing drawings all day, literally, and am exhausted. Funny how that works. It would be nice to have a couple of guys to bear some of the burden so I could hunt more. I will miss this year's deer season because I have to have a house done by Christmas.

From contributor W:
I agree with what contributor R said. I can understand working your guts out for the first couple years to try get your business going, but it is by no means the standard. I go to work from about 8:30 to 6:00, but I usually come home for lunch and take lots of time off for golf, skiing, fishing and family. When I am at work, I am keeping things going or solving a problem of training employees or whatever, but I don't kill myself.

From contributor P:
I'll be candid. I am impressed with the individuals who work alone that bring home six figures. But, that said, it can be done! The reason I am constantly making this point, is that we've been where a lot of you are, working crazy hours and not making money. But it doesn't have to be that way.

On your next 10 proposals, raise your prices 10-15% (I really want you to do 30%, but I realize that some may have a hard time doing this mentally, talking themselves out of money by saying that no one will buy at that price). Track the results, and you *will* find that your closing ratio will pretty much remain at or above what it currently is. Guess what? That 10-15% is extra profit that you can put into your pocket, as you are currently operating your business without this profit. After proving this to yourself, then try 30%...

The point is, I don't care what your market conditions are, how many competitors you have, etc. There is somebody in your market closing the business at a higher margin than you are currently charging. Once you change your mindset about this, this will become you... But you must believe it can be done first.

With regard to hours... It varies from 45-60 hours per week. But once you are making more money, by realizing more profit, the choice is up to you what you do with your time.

Get out of the mindset that more hours equals more money. If you are the boss, it is less money. Instead, I believe it was contributor R who said, "Would you rather work 50 hours a week for $50 per hour, or 25 hours for $100 per hour? If you have to work extra hours to cover your expenses, raise your prices. You are only sacrificing your family time." Amen!

Dadgummit, I will continue to assert that you are professionals... be compensated as such.

From contributor U:
For those that are making over 75K a year net take home, how did you transform your shop from what it was initially to what it is now? I have been doing this now for closing on 3 years full time. When does the money really start to come in? Is it realistic to expect a payoff to start in the next year? Was it five years? Ten years? Do you have to have any employees? One part timer? Two full time? Did you go commercial or stay residential? What is your profit margin? Did you automate? Do you work a set time in the shop each day and schedule only x hours a day for other stuff, or take it as it comes?

I try to charge $75 per hour. All my numbers seem to be inline. Overhead, percent of estimates accepted, materials to total cost ratios. I find that as one person in the shop, I spend only about 20 hours on the bench. I try to take off no later than 6 and not work weekends. Sometimes it seems like I'm slipping backwards. I guess I just need some assurance that it will all work out and that I'm on the right track. From this thread, I think lots of us need a little help on raising our shops to the next level.

From contributor T:
I find it interesting that many of you think in terms of an hourly rate when it comes to your value and your pricing. I wonder why, if you have your own business, you think about being paid an hourly rate? It seems to me that your prices should reflect what the market will bear, that is, what is it worth to the customer? If you think in these terms, it will be much easier to raise prices and get your true value.

From contributor J:
Contributor U, I am only a couple years ahead of you, going into my sixth. Although I have been gradually raising my prices as I get more work, this will be the first year I make more than I did working for someone else.

I've done a lot of work for less than market rate to get established, and get over some of the learning curve. But now that I have built up a portfolio of work and referrals, I feel better able to start charging higher prices, and I plan to continue to gradually raise them until I start running out of work, I guess.

I do work 60 +/- hours a week, six days, take Sundays off most of the time. But I've also taken 3 weeks vacation every year (my wife gets an extra week this year, so it will now be four). My goal is to keep upgrading machinery so I can build faster, and eventually cut down to a 50 hour, 5 day week while hopefully making more profit. Of course, even if I get to that point, I'll probably still be in the shop most Saturdays - always something to work on for the house.

From contributor Q:
I admire all of you that are working so hard, but have to admit that I do not follow in your footsteps. I was taught a long time ago to work smarter, not harder. I have tried to put people in place to handle my business and I try to oversee operations. Typically, I go into work between 10am and 12 noon. I work usually until 5pm, but on occasion until 7 or 8pm. I have about 15 employees. I travel about five times a year. I earn a decent income and enjoy my work. I have been in business since 1979.

From contributor S:
You are a very lucky guy! That schedule almost qualifies you as an absentee owner, which usually spells doom in the long run. Obviously you have a shop foreman/production or office manager that you can really trust. They are very hard to find. Do you profit share with the leaders? How do you insure that you aren't financing their private side business when you are absent on trips?