Slavery Lives

Whenever the discussion turns to the difficulty of attempting to make someone do what you want them to do, a friend states, “You know, slavery is dead”. After one such exchange I began to think more about this statement. Slavery, defined as the holding of a person in legal bondage, ended in the United States in the 1860’s. However, giving the matter some thought, I realized there is a particularly strong strain of slavery which is alive and thriving in the United States today. It lives in the relationship between a business owner and his (her) business. The question is not whether this form of slavery exists, but rather which role is played by the owner and which by the business.

Many if not most new businesses are born from a desire to break free of the bonds of employment and embrace the freedom of entrepreneurial ownership. There is an understanding that long hours and a commitment to do whatever it takes to achieve success are needed to break free of the bonds of employment. The weeks and months before the launch of new venture are filled with excitement, planning, and visions of possible outcomes. The days and weeks after the launch are filled with continued excitement, hard work, and a commitment to success. The new business is a helpless infant. It is completely dependent on the entrepreneur for its nurturing, for its survival. In its helplessness the new business starts as the Master with the entrepreneur as the maternal/paternal Slave.

As time moves on, the business either starts to become successful or it fails. The failed business sends the entrepreneur back to the world of employment to lick his wounds, either planning for the next venture or committing to avoid future risk. The early success of the venture drives the entrepreneur to a new place, a place where the Master, that is the business, demands growth. A business cannot grow without resources. The entrepreneur works to find the resources needed to create a period of growth. He believes growth is needed to achieve success, falling back on the old saying that a business is either growing or it is dying. Gradually, the entrepreneur takes on the mindset of being the Owner. The Owner remains committed to the success of the business. All of the time, energy and financial commitment needed to fuel the growth of the business are committed as a matter of course. As the dream of success becomes more finely defined, the commitment of the Owner becomes stronger. The Owner repeatedly states to himself and others that “I can see what this business can become and I am committed to make it happen”. The Owner and the business become inseparable. Customers, vendors, and the general community know that although there are a growing number of employees, the Owner is the business. Getting a commitment from the Owner will lead to their success. Unfortunately, the growing business continues to be the Master and the Owner, the Slave.

A successful business grows to the point where its survival is not at risk from the normal ebb and flow of daily events. The risk of a catastrophic event continues to exist, but the Owner becomes comfortable with being able to enjoy the rewards of profitable business operation. The company car, business trips to industry events, a strong bump in salary are all indications of the success of the business, and therefore, the success of the Owner. The Owner is bonded to the business and the business provides rewards. The Owner takes the business personally. It seems natural that personal life and family life become intermingled with the life of the business. The business is still the Master; the Owner the Slave.

The Master-Business-and-Owner-Slave-relationship will not change until and unless the Owner creates the change. Until the Owner takes action to become the Master, he will owe his life to the business; the business is his life.

The first step in becoming the Master is for the Owner to recognize that he is separate from his business. As a Slave to the business, the Owner feels that it is a part of him. He grieves over losses and takes personally setbacks incurred by the business. He looks at the potential failure of the business as a personal failure. The mindset-shift required to break this bond begins with the Owner asking himself three questions:

1. What do you want your business to produce for you?

2. How long are you willing to invest your time, capital, and emotion in your business before it pays a satisfactory return on your investment?

3. How will you exit from your business?

The process of thoughtfully answering the three questions begins to provide a plan of action, which will transform the Owner from being the Slave to being the Master. The best time to first ask the three questions is during the initial planning for the business. The next best time is the first time the Owner realizes that he (she) actually works for the business rather than having the business work for him (her). Regardless of when the questions are first posed, the value of the exercise is quickly lost, unless it is reinforced on a regular basis. Initially, glance at the answers on a daily basis and review them closely at the close of each week.

The mindset-shift which began with answering the three key questions takes root when the Owner agrees to not take anything personally. A key employee leaving to start her own business is not a personal attack on the Owner. A key vendor changing the terms of its relationship with the business is not a threat made against the Owner. Taking anything dealing with your business personally shifts power from you, the Owner, back to the business. The Owner is back into the role of the Slave. The Master Owner cares greatly about the business. He (she) cares enough to not take it personally.

The Master Owner is in control of the business, although he (she) may delegate much authority in the operation of the business. Stepping back from the day-to-day operation of the business allows the Owner to work on the business rather than only in the business. In addition to working predominantly on the business, the Master Owner makes a point to regularly separate from the business for periods of time. A business which cannot operate without the owner’s immediate attention is a not a Slave, it is the Master.

Long working hours and sleepless nights are not a badge of honor, they are bonds of slavery. A business cannot be a perpetual monument to its founder. At best, the founding Owner is forgotten; at worst, he becomes an advertising theme. The true legacy left by a founding Owner is a business, which performs successfully for its subsequent owners.

A successful business serves its Owner. Invest in your business, then let it pay you dividends. Have fun with your business. Enjoy the rewards provided by your business and above all, know when to exit. Someone else will come behind you investing to start the process over again.

Joe Schumacker

Taking It Deeper:

The E myth Revisited, Michael Gerber

The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz