Illusions of freedom and security

As our society moves towards a more regulated work environment, choosing between the cubicle life or being self-employed has become more difficult. CONTROL contributor, Dick Morley, provides informal tips.

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Other VoicesBy Dick Morley, CONTROL Contributor

THIS NOTE calls for a switch in your thinking. Previous columns discussed ways to get your career going. They were centered around opportunities while working in the cubicle—the suit cage. Half of the U.S. is working for these big boys, and indirectly we all do. Another life exists, however, the self-employed engineer. I have been one since 1964, or basically forever.

Let's talk about life in the cubicle first. My dearly departed skiing buddy, Odo Struger, lived the good life in the cubicle. He decided long ago to be in the ship’s cockpit rather than in the engine room. I con-sciously elected to be Scotty, downstairs with the dilithium crystals. In the long run, we both made good choices. We ended up with enough money to ski, and were pleased with our lives. His choice of employer, Allen-Bradley, was excellent. A-B was a family-owned company with a long view towards employee/employer relationships. So, both participants benefited.

We also learned that the cubicle life has the illusion of security, while the self-employed life has the illusion of freedom. Both ideals have eroded over time, and both roads have potholes. I’m reminded of the argument about the advantages of GM vs. Ford cars. Is there really an intrinsic difference? Probably not. Each can satisfy the needs of any of us.

So, what are the specific advantages to being a cubical-based employee of a substantial company? Well, I did some rump interviews with my own staff, and came up with some positive items:

  • Stability
  • No emotional attachment
  • You don't have to worry about the other employees
  • You don't normally take the job home
  • Decisions are mostly made by others
  • Benefits are stable
  • Greater social interaction

On the other hand, cubicle negatives can include:

  • Limited creativity
  • More constrained by rules
  • Stagnation
  • Tied to 9-to-5 schedule (no naps)
  • Meetings
  • Silo responsibility

In addition, as our society moves towards a more regulated work environment, larger companies become more attractive. So, here is some minor advice: remember that your job is to make the stakeholders’ (company, people, and family) wishes come true. Help them do what they want to do, not what they should do.

An alternative to the cubicle is the garage, though being self-employed isn’t rational. We don't make more money, unless we’re a superstar. We have no one to blame but ourselves for failure. We work half time—12 hours a day. My narrow sample of the self-employed suggests anger is a motivation and often comes from frustration in the workplace. The reason for this friction in the previous job may be your fault, not that of your former employer. The startup personality often seems to be unmanageable and so-cially awkward.

Who is this unreasonable person, and what should be the profile of the successful, self-employed hunter? I’m suggesting that there are two kinds of psyches here—the farmer and the hunter. The farmer psyche is the big company guy, and the hunter is the startup person or the successful salesman.

Similarly, in the angel-investment business, our successes are people, not product. Usually a male, this entrepreneur should understand cash from birth. If, for instance, his parents worked at the post office, he’s unlikely to succeed. Parental work experience in small companies is a plus. Bankruptcy is also a great teacher. A master’s degree in technology typically is another component of success.

Before embarking, we shall examine the shoals of the harbor. Our Breakfast Club VC experience shows the divorce rate of the self-employed may be higher than average. My own bride’s pungent comment says it all: "The wife comes second." Her second comment notes that a vacation schedule is decided by business demands, and not family wishes. In fact, much of the contact with immediate family is via e-mail, which is not good. A self-employed person must sometimes put business before health and family.

Even the Mafia’s rules of health, family and business, in that order, will be ignored by the self-employed. We do the reverse, of course, and put business first and health last in our existing jobs. Wild swings in cash and debt will keep even the most prosaic person awake at 3 a.m. Discipline and resolve also are key components of the self-employed.

However, the cage of the large company isn’t all roses either. That's why you’ve read this far. Your talents seem to be underutilized, and apparently aren’t a component of success. Achievement depends more on political skills and less on engineering abilities, but the money is steady and the benefits are good. Wealth, as defined by my Harley-Davidson friends, is your ability to make choices, and not the money in the bank.

Such choices and decisions are limited in the company-employee role. Even your vacation schedule is only partly under control. So, wealth is limited. Staying apolitical is tough.

Despite their respective rough spots, both roads can be rewarding. Just manage your next five years carefully. How do you start? I was working for a defense contractor when I discovered skiing (even Mr. Clumsy can ski). So off I went. My keen engineering mind noticed after several years that the crowds were smaller on weekdays than on weekends. Logic dictated skiing should be done on Friday, and doing work on Saturday. More work could be done, and I wouldn’t have to attend iron-butt-inducing meetings. Request refused; 'twas against company policy. So I quit.

It took me six months to make the decision, and my wife said to go for it. No decision is a decision. The company hired me back (under contract) for three days a week, and at the same pay. A fair deal because I had the loss of benefits loss and overhead to manage, which was another great economics lesson.

My self-employed location was in the basement of my house. I hired a mother’s-shift secretary. “But she has nothing to do,” noted my buddies. This was the point. You gotta hustle work fast, and not do billing, typing, and payables. Later, my company, Bedford Associates, was located in a three-bay garage. Non-core assets were kept low. My partner kept me away from the toys, and focused on the business. Another lesson: don't buy the display of success; earn it. Your money should come from friends and family. Both will forgive the "loan" over time. Here are some more informal tips for the self-employed:

  • Slow money sticks
  • Get a lab book for patents and billing records
  • Charge 1% of annual salary per day ($100,000 annual charges $1,000 per day)
  • Read the book Winning Angels
  • Lawyers and accountants give advice, not permission
  • Profit is the protein of the business, not revenue
  • Marketing is the key, not the technology
  • Never mow your own lawn

This lawn advice is key. If you mow your own lawn, you have the highest paid landscaping guy in town. If you have no work, get out of the house and sell. You are making one of the biggest decisions of your life, so focus. On the serious side, you need:

  • 100% of a market
  • The best people in sales, finance and technology
  • A product or service that delivers on customer expectations
  • A barrier to entry by others (an unfair advantage in your favor)
  • An understanding of the customer’s needs and wants, which aren’t the same
  • More money

When you are self-employed, you have the illusion of freedom. It can be rocky, but you’re making the future at the expense of the present, so go for it.


  About the Author
Dick MorleyCredited with creating both the modern PLC and building automation control system, Dick Morley quit working so he could toil in a barn in New Hampshire. He lives in his wife Shirley’s house and can be contacted at morley@barn.org.
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