Being the Boss Ain’t for Sissies

Being the Boss Ain’t for Sissies

Ted Murphy, the CEO of IZEA, has written several posts on being passionate in your job and creating an atmosphere where passion and creativity can thrive. Having worked closely with Ted these past few months on several projects, I know first hand that he walks the walk and not just “ploughs the cake.”

Like Ted says in his post, it’s hard to be the Boss.

And it ain’t for sissies.

Think of it this way – in effect, you’re responsible for the happiness and well being of not just every employee, but of every family member dependent upon the paycheck of that employee.

Heavy? You have no idea. Or maybe you do.

My business model for Sumner Systems Management has changed dramatically since starting the company back in 1996. We used to be a boutique supplemental manpower development company. Put as many fannies in as many seats for as long as possible. After the dot com crash, and 9/11, and the advent of offshore development, that model swiftly fell by the wayside.

Hello, 1099s. Goodbye W-2s.

So, today the only full time employee at my company is me. Everyone else who works for me directly is a 1099, tied to a specific project for a specific period of time.

I miss having full time employees. I miss the camaraderie. And I miss socializing and getting to know their families.

Harkening back to when I did have full time employees, here are the things that I did to try and make the job seem a lot less like a job and something to look forward to:

  • We always handed out paychecks over breakfast. Every two weeks, we’d truck over to Cracker Barrel and eat breakfast together (my treat). It was a great way to have an all hands company meeting (without calling an all hands company meeting) and have everyone hear what each other was doing. I think I miss this the most.
  • I would set aside between $1,500 to $3,000 for each employee annually for professional development. This could come in the form of conferences, ongoing education, or other training. Employee’s option.
  • We had a matching SEP-IRA for each eligible vested employee.
  • I almost never – never – asked any employee to work overtime. Ever. My feeling was that if I had to ask an employee to work more than 40 hours a week, I wasn’t doing my job properly.
  • I didn’t babysit my employees. They were adults, they had hours to bill, and the focus was on the success of their projects – and not whether they were at their desks at 8:01 or 5:15. Honestly, if I had to track their comings and goings as a performance metric I would have bagged it years ago. Life’s too short.
  • I tried to pay what I thought was a competitive wage. I never paid a developer working for me less than $65,000 per year (in Nashville, TN, ten years ago.) I always felt that if an employee was worrying about making ends meet, they weren’t focused on doing the job at hand with 100% focus.
  • I always paid my contractors the minute they submitted their invoices. Still do today. Getting paid is what it’s all about.
  • And I never treated my relationship with my employees as if our arrangement was anything more than a job. Not that I didn’t care about them – in fact, quite the opposite. I realized that I had an obligation to create an atmosphere where my employees could grow, and eventually, grow out of the job I was providing them. But at the end of the day, it was only a job and the real thing of value in their lives was their families, not the time spent with me and Sumner Systems Management.

Like with most things in life, I had mixed success with this approach. Some employees thrived; others took advantage; a few were fired.

If I had any advice that I could give any employer it would be this: respect your employee’s situation, regardless where they are in their personal and professional environment. And if you’re going to compensate your employees with anything, make it count and be real. Paying your mortgage and providing a good life for your kids is real; a new title with a small pay increase and double the responsibility is a sop.

Cash, Equity, and Stake are always good. I don’t care what you read about money not being important – that’s utter B.S. People and families need security and hope for the future, and that’s why they are working for you.

This post is more rambling than I initially anticipated, but holds many truths that I still believe in and try to live by today in my dealings with colleagues and contractors. If you’ve stuck with it this far, I hope it’s provided you with something substantive.

And if you’ve navigated a company, large or small, through this Great Recession you have my respect and admiration.

Being the boss ain’t for sissies. But it is a great way to build something that makes not only a great life for you but also for the people who work with and for you.

4 thoughts on “Being the Boss Ain’t for Sissies

  1. So well said. How did you avoid the temptation to cut corners and pay the least amount possible for each employee? Sounds like a waste of money to a corporation mindset.


    1. Oh, we were in the business of making a profit – no mistake about that. But it is an order of magnitude easier managing and motivating someone devoting their time thinking of the job at hand rather than worrying about how the electric bill is going to be paid or how they’re gonna pay little Johnny’s tuition.

      Plus, when a group of employees sees that you are the only one benefiting significantly from the fruit of everyone’s collective labors, how long do you think they’re going to stay loyal? About as soon as it takes the next person to come along and offer $1,000 more per year in salary.

      And when you think about payroll in the context of weekly or biweekly checks, whether someone gets an additional $1,000 (or $5,000) in annual salary – relatively speaking – is small potatoes in comparison to recruiting a new person, training them, and establishing trust that they will consistently do their work to the same level that the person you let walk over an additional $100 per week.

      My particular model worked well enough for me. In that line of business, each employee generated between $140,000 and $150,000 a year in revenue, so I could more than afford to pay a fair wage. It was a win-win and really not hard at all to justify.


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