The Own Your Own Business Alternative

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January 2013
by Christopher Robbins

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After 17 years running someone else’s publishing business, I resigned my position as CEO, threw caution to the wind, and launched my own publishing house, where I’ve been working day in and day out for almost a year. Now I’ve been giving some thought to the question of which is better—working for someone else or being on my own as a publisher.

Starting with Squash

I had the nerve to go out on my own partly because I’m no stranger to entrepreneurship. By pulling my red wagon around our suburban Utah neighborhood when I was a kid, I sold more zucchini from our family garden than the local grocery store sold from its bins. My pitch was, “How do you know if you don’t have any friends? You have to buy your own zucchini.” I sold by the baker’s dozen and my customers liked having a young boy named Christopher Robbins as their friend (being named after a storybook character had its advantages).

As an adult in the 1990s, I launched two publishing businesses, both unsuccessful. The first one died when my partner died. The second was a brilliant digital-only publishing company that provided fiction via serial email deliveries. We called it Novelocity and our tagline was Your Daily Serial. It died after I focused 100 percent of my energy on getting venture capital (remember, this was the ’90s), flying in Lear Jets to New York where young Internet firms competed to build us a Web site for $5 million, on average. While they were offering us plates of exotic cheeses, we were dreaming of being millionaires.

In March of 2000, as my partner and I were sitting in our chief investor’s boardroom, about to pick up a check for the first major investment, the CEO got a call. The market was crashing. Our check came off the table, literally.

We flew home watching the Dow Jones and NASDAQ plummet, wiping out fortunes. And we were left owning a company with no content and no money. Stupid.

Having been disappointed twice as an entrepreneur and having a young family, I decided to focus all my energy on building someone else’s publishing business. With colleagues at the company that I joined, I worked, strategized, worked, strategized, worked and got lucky every year through 2008. We grew 20 to 35 percent a year, paid off loans, built backlist, added infrastructure, warehouses, and office space, had bestsellers, and believed we were smart.

It was fantastic. We made serious money, growing from under $2 million to $26 million by betting on the housing and textbook markets. Then the housing bubble of 2008 killed both markets. I had left the company vulnerable, and that decision was a job killer, a spirit killer, and a mission killer. While the company could and did go on, decisions that I had made or helped to make took a tremendous toll, and it was time for me to go.

Observations from Experience

My experiences so far lead me to believe that running your own company isn’t necessarily better than working for somebody else’s. Each has its pros and cons. But there are significant differences, and I do have some observations about vision, workload, risk vs. rewards, education, immediacy, and impact on family life.

Vision. I believe that any venture requires a vision. And I really do mean a vision—you need to see a destination somewhere out on the horizon. And it has to have form and structure and color so you can see it clearly and want to get there regardless of the obstacles.

When I was CEO of somebody else’s company, I had a vision of what I wanted the company to be. I saw it clearly, and, while I didn’t know how to make it come true, I knew we would if we kept moving forward. What I didn’t anticipate was that as I got closer and closer to my vision, we were getting farther and farther from the founder’s vision.

That’s a big problem. And while we worked to adapt and find commonality, eventually vision became a point of friction.

Owning your own company gives you control over your vision. But it can also lead you to delude yourself into believing that you are otherwise in control. The customer is in control, and the customer can decide to fire you at any time by simply not purchasing your product. This means that your vision must agree with and deliver on the needs and wants of your market.

Workload. I’ve never been a nine-to-five guy, and of course I’m not going to be one in my current startup mode. Further, my eyes are always bigger than my stomach. The company I’ve been creating from scratch went from having no titles to having 70 under contract and 20 published, plus full interactive crowd sourcing and a social media–enriched Web site in six months. It’s crazy.

I spend 12 to 14 hours a day working on this new company. I hear about people spending 18 hours a day on ventures, and I’m not sure how that’s possible, since you have to eat something, take a shower, use the restroom, sleep, get dressed, and, if you are married (as I am) and have kids (as I do, nine of them), you have to have time to talk to them, at the very least, or you can work your way out of the family pretty quick. And—forgive the preaching—I believe that no success can compensate for failure in the home.

When I was running someone else’s company, I often put in the same number of hours, taking redeyes to New York to work all day and catching a flight back that night, only to start again the next day somewhere else. The objective was the same: ensuring cash flow. As in my entrepreneurial startup, I had sales to manage, accounting to get done, vendors to pacify, reps to inspire, personnel to manage.

But there was a major difference. An established company has existing cash flow and a basic infrastructure. Starting with something is better than starting with nothing.

Risk vs. reward. Some people believe that working for someone else involves little risk. I think that is another delusion. There is always risk. You can be fired, laid off, outsourced; the company can intend to keep up with changing conditions but fail to do that, or it can be sold, or the market can shift . . . Risk is inherent in life.

And working for someone else can provide tremendous rewards. You can focus on a specific job, believing that your colleagues are focusing on their jobs so that the entire organization is functional. My definition of teamwork is individuals executing assigned responsibility, which can deliver many benefits beyond a paycheck, including less stress and more peace of mind.

Working for myself has forced me to be much more appreciative of all those people I used to work with, who helped my employer’s company succeed. I appreciate the editors for their skill with words, the publicity department for their phone calls and emails, the receptionist who screened calls and kept paper in the copier. You get the idea. Working for yourself wakes you up to the realization that a company is dependent on the skills of many.

Education. This was unexpected, but I have learned more about publishing, technology, my own capacity, and business this year than I learned in the previous five years, and I’ve rediscovered my love of learning. Having knowledge and growth as unintended consequences of entrepreneurship is a fantastic benefit.

The first time I figured out how to grab a script and import it into InDesign so that I could create an automatic index based on some key words, I was as excited as a little kid. And when I figured out how to create wireframes for Web sites Ithought I was the cat’s meow.

Immediacy. Entrepreneurs, business managers, CEOs, and the like are not patient people. We want it yesterday. One of the most interesting aspects of running my own company is how fast I can create positive change. If I want a contract written, I write it. If I want a book acquired, I acquire it. If I want a new Web page created, I create it. If I want a book edited differently, I edit it. If I want a distribution partner, I pick up the phone. If I want a different printer, I call one. The only roadblock is managing all the things I want to get done in one day.

When I was somebody else’s CEO, we focused on multiplying the effects of individuals’ efforts by setting objectives and delegating. This works really well when everyone is tuned to the same notes, everyone is reading the same score, everyone is playing in tune, and what everyone is playing sells tickets. But managing that symphony can often lead to concordia discors so that nothing gets done or things take way too long.

I am convinced that most companies run way too fat and that, instead of becoming more organized, they allow entropy to enter and slow things down. Having a very young and nimble company lets me pivot quickly and get it done now rather than wait for the meeting, discussion, or handwringing to end.

At some point, I’m either going to burn out or get more help. Then, the objective will be to maintain the entrepreneurial, full-speed mentality, but with better systems to protect the organization. I’ve seen it done.

Impact on family life. I came to my new venture believing that I’d be able to manage my business and family responsibilities without letting either get in the way of the other. I was wrong.

Entrepreneurship can be overwhelming at times, as a book must get to the printer on that day or that file must be uploaded then or that partner must hear back from us immediately. This has an impact on family. My wife, after spending the last 20 years raising children, is involved, which is exciting for both of us (working with your spouse has its own advantages and disadvantages, but that’s for a different article). Recently, though, one of my sons said that I should find some more money so “Mom wouldn’t have to be at the computer.” Ouch!

Each day, I have to make choices about what is more important—the business or the family. Our entire family has had to counsel together about how to manage competing claims on time. In the end, the family has to win, because the enterprise is a means, not an end.

Understanding that no solution can be perfect and that the family is the first priority is helpful. I know I have to temper my enthusiasm and not believe that I’m championing some all-important cause with the company. It’s a means. It’s a means. It’s a means . . .

My Guiding Principles Now

So, is it better to be an entrepreneur or an intrepreneur? Having had both experiences, I think both are great, with different benefits. In addition, I’m more appreciative of and inspired by people who launch companies and succeed, and I’m more appreciative of people who make existing companies succeed.

What I’ve learned through both kinds of roles is that action is better than inaction. Decide and move forward. Put one foot in front of another, and don’t fear taking that next step. While the vision is there and is a destination, the journey is the destination too.


Christopher Robbins is the founder of Familius.com, a company focused on helping families be happy.

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