Oswald Letter

Is Business Still Fun?

The other day I was having a conversation with a friend and colleague — more friend than colleague. We were discussing the economy, business, and some of the challenges we’re experiencing at our company. As we wrapped up our conversation and I headed for the door, he asked me, “Are you all right?”

His question surprised me. I had to ask him what he meant by it. Of course, I’m “all right.” But he was being perceptive. The current economic environment and its impact on business is weighing on me and probably just about everyone else.

I spoke to the principal of one of our strategic partners the other day. The discussion centered on what they needed to do to survive. We weren’t talking about profit margins, just mere survival. He related how he’d already laid off a significant number of staff members and even required many of the remaining employees to take weeks of unpaid vacation to reduce his expenses. He told me that during the past year he’d had to make some of the toughest decisions of his career. “It’s not fun saying goodbye to people who’ve been with you for 10 or 12 years.”

Another friend who owns his own business called recently to say that he was concerned that he was facing bankruptcy. “I probably have about three months unless things change significantly,” he told me. His company, which has been in business for more than 30 years, has shrunk to half the size it was just two years ago. He’s been through a number of rounds of layoffs and had to cut the pay of most of his remaining staff.

So I ask you, “Is business still fun?” For these two, and they’re just convenient examples of what tens of thousands of companies across the country are going through, it can’t be. Watching your business shrink, possibly out of existence, while having to let go long-term employees or even ask them to do their work for less, can’t be fun.

I heard a new phrase the other day, “Flat is the new up.” Meaning if you can just sustain revenue during this recessionary period you’re ahead of the game. I had to ask myself if that was true or just another business owner deluding himself?

Of course, if you set the bar low enough, you can convince yourself you’re succeeding. But when you compare “flat” to what so many others are experiencing, he may be right. The problem is that it still doesn’t feel good. We haven’t laid off a single person. Our business is on budget for the first four months of this year. Yet, there is no feeling of success. There is no feeling of momentum. There is no opportunity to kick your feet on the desk and just feel good about everything. And that bothers me.

I’ve always been a firm believer that you must do what you love if you want to be truly successful. I tell my kids that they should find something they’re passionate about and then figure out how they can make a living at it. I’ve always felt that way about business. I like working with a group of people to build a company that is a growing and dynamic place to work. It’s fun.

But right now, it’s hard. It’s hard to grow. It’s hard to succeed. It’s hard to have fun.

But I think we still have a choice. We can choose to enjoy the battle and take satisfaction in the small successes, or we can be utterly miserable in what we do. It is a choice. Not every minute of every day is going to be a moment that you treasure, but there will be some. You need to focus on those positive things that you’re experiencing. You need to celebrate the successes, no matter how small. And, you need to do this for those around you because if you’re struggling with enjoying what you do, you can be sure others around you are as well.

I have to admit that right now business isn’t as much fun as it once was for me, but it’s still fun. And when the economy recovers and those successes become more frequent again, I’ll be able to appreciate them all the more for having been through these tough times.

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