Paul Downs Cabinetmakers in Bridgeport was founded by Paul Downs in 1986, right after he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. After almost 30 years, it's still in business, but he has news for small-business owners - it doesn't get easier.
Downs, 53, contributed to a now defunct New York Times blog about the trials of a business owner, and this year published a book, Boss Life (Penguin). It follows a year in the life of his Montgomery County-based workshop and his obsession with cash flow that all small-business owners will recognize.
Downs makes custom conference tables and office furniture - especially high-end boardroom tables. He kept the business alive during the financial crisis, the ensuing recession, and workers' screwing up or even leaving.
All the while, he and his wife, Nancy, were raising three sons, now college-aged, in Penn Valley. One son, Henry, is so severely autistic and physically threatening that his wife refuses to leave the house with him. Henry's needs play a heartbreaking role in the book, and even change the way Downs runs the business. (He started leaving the office sooner.)
"You can't understand a boss without knowing what he goes home to," Downs writes. And yet, he discovers, "keeping the barrier between my work and home lives was a mistake. When my wife had a clear picture of the situation, she became an ally instead of an adversary."
Boss Life works best as a narrative, each chapter detailing one month in the business during 2012. We witness sales suddenly explode, or vanish; the running net cash-flow tally (mostly negative) and thoughts swirling in Downs' head, such as Why am I so afraid to fire people when they don't perform? Why am I such a bad salesman? Why are we paying Google so much money for AdWords? Is that really what a good boss does?
Readers will hold their breath as Downs succeeds, then barely survives, month by month.
The book was born out of Downs' unusually blunt and disarming contributions to the blog "You're the Boss" for the Times. It ended in December 2014, but is available here: http://boss.blogs.nytimes.com
"For a few years, I was dropping my pants in public. Most business writers are rich and smart. I'm not rich and I'm not smart, and that gained a following among readers," he recalls with a laugh.
"It was 2009 and my business was about to fail. I was looking online for what do you do, and I wrote a letter to the editor, saying 'You have nothing on businesses that are failing. My business is about to fail. I'd be happy to write about it.' They took me up on the idea."
Most business books are written by "the success stories. My life isn't like that," he adds.
"I'd never seen a book that talked about the very complex life of the small-business owner. All these problems arrive at random and you have a constant need to get money in the door. I've never seen anyone lay it out there."
In 2009, the company was at death's door, and he rarely had more than a week's worth of cash on hand. In 2010, he came within a day of running out of money. A partner and mentor abandoned him. A new customer prompted the design of a U-shaped conference table. Then the customer couldn't pay.
Downs waded through which health insurance to buy, negotiated the lease, restarted the server, shooed away birds invading the shop, and even vacuumed the office.
Owning a business, even one with millions in revenue, has not made Downs a wealthy man. At points in the book, he stops paying himself a salary, or loans the business money.
He also learned important lessons, such as how to go about firing an unproductive employee.
"Bad employees made good employees feel bad. Seeing a coworker get away with sloppy work and laziness is a slap in the face," he writes. "They hate it."
Downs also sought out help from a sales guru, who teaches him and his team to stop wasting time and drop accounts that require too much maintenance for minimal profit.
The best result of writing the book for Downs? Small-business owners have flooded him with email after reading Boss Life.
The book "made me, and I'm sure others, feel a lot less lonely sitting here in the decision-maker chair," one reader wrote.
As of last week, Downs employed 16 people, after having just laid off two workers, a process he loathes. His 2014 new contracts totaled $2.53 million and revenue $2.92 million. But new contracts are flat this year and revenue is going to be way down for 2015, he estimates.
Still, "there are 30 million businesses in America with under 20 employees," he notes.
"Small business isn't an easy road to success. They're not dot.coms like Facebook. They are pizza parlors and hairdressers. We rely on them to make our communities vibrant."