Killing my business was the hardest decision I ever made
I have earned money one way or another since I was thirteen years old. I have struggled and succeeded, fallen back and risen again for fifty-nine long years.
In 1983, I started the business that would consume more than three decades of my life.
I had started businesses before this. I had a part-time rare coin business with my brother in law and had been in a partnership with a friend running a wholesale/retail hobby ceramics shop. Those businesses were deliberate and planned; starting them was a decision reached after serious consideration and planning.
Beginning this business was more from desperation than planning.
After giving up on those prior businesses in 1981, I worked as a Customer Support Rep at the Tandy Computer Center in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. My base pay was a mere $5.05 per hour, but I also was paid a cut of the store’s entire sales revenue. The store was doing very well selling early Tandy Computers to consumers and business customers, so I was also doing well. Life was good.
Then IBM introduced the IBM PC. The effect on Tandy Computer sales was immediate and draconian. Our customers, consumer and business, melted away. The salespeople, who also lived mostly on commission, sat at their desks with nothing to do.
I still had work supporting existing customers, but my paychecks shrunk to $202 a week before taxes. Worse, because Customer Support Reps at other local stores quit to find jobs elsewhere, I had to drive to support customers that had not formerly been my responsibility. That cost me extra gasoline, which would eventually be reimbursed, but I had to pay for it out of a newly diminished paycheck.
I asked for a raise, which was denied. I quit and walked out with no new job on my radar.
This was not entirely reckless. Because other reps had left before me, there were now several stores with customers who needed support, but the stores had no staff to do that support. That was the hole I intended to fill.
I had some business cards printed up and started calling customers I knew from my former store. I stopped at every Tandy and Radio Shack computer store I knew to introduce myself and offer my knowledge and skills. I charged the stores nothing to help them make sales. Nothing, that is, beyond an introduction to their customers.
Tandy was dying because of IBM, so I branched out to add PC work. I worked hard, charged fair prices, was reliable, and I was good at what I did, which was almost anything. I joked with my wife that my motto should be “Have brain, will travel.”
There were ups and downs, good decisions and bad, but there was always plenty of work. I hired four employees, which was an expensive mistake, but I survived, and for a few years after, it was just me and one partner. Then he moved across country. We kept the firm going for a bit, joking that we were “conveniently located at both ends of Interstate 90”, but gave that up because taxes and paperwork became too complicated.
I had some dark days after that where I twice contracted out to work full time for a customer, but eventually, I was back to where I had started with only myself and plenty of customers. I set a new rule for myself then:
“Fifty is nifty, but twenty is plenty”
In a previous business, a partner and I used that to joke about our competitors who could not match the wholesale discounts we offered to customers, but in this business, I meant that I would try to work only twenty hours a week. I set that because my wife had become partly disabled from arthritis. Her disease was getting worse; I wanted to have time for us to enjoy our lives while we still could.
We did enjoy ourselves. Twenty hours of billing on top of software license renewals and retainer fees gave us a very nice income for many years. I also had a very successful technical website that fed me leads, helped me sell some technical books I wrote, and added Google Adsense money to my income. All told, we could depend on about $60,000 a year before doing any hourly billing at all. We lived well, spent most of our summers in a western Massachusetts camping resort, and enjoyed a mostly carefree life for many years.
Running a computer consulting business as I did requires flexibility, adaptability, and constant learning. Early on, I had sold hardware and done programming and troubleshooting because canned software often did not exist for my customers’ needs. Then I had to switch to selling software licenses rather than programming because canned software was available. Then bigger firms took over selling hardware and software, mostly squeezing out little folks like me. And, of course, the technology constantly changed, with new hardware and new operating systems bringing a constant flood of necessary reeducation and learning.
I coped, but as I got older, the pace of change became harder for me to keep up with. I began retreating into more specialized areas, eventually reaching the point where almost all my business was small business security routers and mail servers.
My income dwindled. As technology changed and bigger technical sites took over the web, my website income and new leads vanished. To combat that, I took Social Security at age 62. That kept us living well for another five years, but by then the business income had dropped even more. I decided to take a part-time job and applied at an Apple retail store.
I didn’t want to do technical support, so I applied as sales and was hired in a part-time capacity on December 5th, 2015. I had second thoughts about this right up to the last moment. As I stood in the lobby of the hotel where I would receive Apple’s “Core” training, I hesitated. Couldn’t I reinvent myself again? Was I really too burned out to pick up another technology to add to my business? I walked back toward the street, tossing that around in my head. Then I sighed deeply, turned around, and went to the training. As I walked into the room, my first thought was “Tired brain, don’t want to travel.”
I enjoyed the job and did very well at it. My reviews from customers and my superiors were excellent, and the extra income was more than enough to put us back to our accustomed income level. My business continued with little attention from me as it was now mostly license sales and a little phone support.
A year later, my business was threatened by a bigger company buying out the company that made the security routers and mail servers that supplied most of my income. At the same time, Apple informed me that they considered my business to be a conflict of interest. I had to either leave the job or close my business.
I worried over that for days. My business gave me some measure of independence and freedom. We could still take days off whenever we wanted and could enjoy our summers in western Massachusetts. As long as I had that remaining core of a business, I had the theoretical option of branching out again. If I gave that up, our life choices would be reduced. I’d have to work full time at Apple to make up the missing money, and it would not fully replace it at that.
On the other hand, my core supplier being bought out was troublesome. The new owners were making changes to commissions and sales territories that I did not like. I enjoyed the Apple job, and our summer sojourns were becoming more difficult for my wife as her disease progressed. We talked all of this out until there was nothing more to say and it was left to me to decide.
I could not sleep that night. I cried from regret, remorse, and anger. I wanted our old life back, with its steady flow of money and easy work. But that life was gone, and I could not see any path to get it back. I paced and argued with myself, replaying the pros and the cons again and again.
Then I showered, shaved, and dressed for work. I still fretted throughout the forty minute drive. When I parked my car, I sat for a few minutes reviewing my life and my choices. With another deep sigh, I left the car and walked in to tell my bosses that I had decided to stay with Apple. I remained for more than four years all together.
The full-time schedule was very hard for me, though I did love the work and continued to excel and receive praise. But my wife’s disease was hindering her more, so at the end of 2019, I switched back to part-time, hoping that would be enough for me to take care of my wife. It was not, and the new threat of COVID-19 arrived in February to worry me more. Working retail in the midst of a pandemic seemed foolhardy; I decided that I needed to quit.
That was another agonizing decision and one that worried my wife greatly. She knew that I was exhausted and knew that she needed me more, but she worried about money. I did spreadsheet after spreadsheet showing that even in worst-case scenarios, we would still live well. She reluctantly agreed. I told Apple that it was time for me to retire and left on February 28th.
They gave me a nice sendoff and asked if I would consider a contract gig during their busy season. I said that I would, but knew in my heart that I would not be able to do that. My working life was over.
That simple sentence gave me pause: my working life was over. I have earned money one way or another since I was thirteen years old. I have struggled and succeeded, fallen back, and risen again for fifty-nine long years. My work defined me. I was proud of what I had done to support myself and my family, and now that was finished. What was I now? What was I, other than an old man left to putter away what remained of his life?
No, that was not me. A business or another job was out of the question, but I wasn’t going to watch TV and play poker or pool like so many of my peers. I needed a challenge; I needed to be creative, to continue learning. I needed something that did not require a set schedule so that I could tend to my wife’s needs.
That’s why I’m here writing. This is not a business for me and generates next to nothing in income, but it gives me purpose. It defines me again; it replaces what I was before. It’s good.
My life is not over just yet.