The Founder of Paul Downs Cabinetmakers Shares Small Business Struggles

The Penn Valley craftsman wrote about his career in 'Boss Life: Surviving My Own Small Business.'



HARD CHOICES: Paul Downs’ new book takes an eye-opening look at what it’s like to run your own shop.

A year into starting his custom-furniture- making business, Paul Downs hired his first employee. Just like that, the Penn Valley resident was someone’s boss.

In the 28 years since, Paul Downs Cabinetmakers has changed drastically, with the “boss” part as the only constant. “[Bosses have] the ultimate decision-making power in the company, with no oversight,” says Downs.

And another thing: “They have their own money on the line.”

After hiring more than a hundred people (and firing a few), Downs didn’t think anyone truly grasped his enormous responsibility. He’d always wanted to read an honest assessment of the realities of running a small business-—the daily struggles. So he decided to write the thing himself. Boss Life: Surviving My Own Small Business is out now via Blue Rider Press. “This is the book I’ve always wanted to read about business,” he says.

On the fourth floor of a nondescript factory building in Bridgeport, Downs spends most days in his office, sitting at a desk he built, surrounded by scattered chairs, some also of his own creation. On the walls are still-life paintings, a few by his wife, Nancy Bea Miller

There’s also a framed newspaper clipping from a newspaper in his tiny Illinois hometown. It shows a 12-year-old Downs, glasses overwhelming his small face, proudly holding a model ship he built in a local contest. “My mother saved this for me,” says Downs. “I was always building something as a kid.” 

Outside his office is a 30,000-square-foot shop where up to 10 craftsmen are building conference tables for clients across the country. From his office, Downs does everything he can to make sure there’s always enough work to keep his staff employed. That hasn’t been the easiest of tasks—especially over the past decade. 

Downs left the Midwest in 1985 to study engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. The plan after graduation was to continue his education and become an architect. “I’d been working as a carpenter’s helper, and he said to me, ‘You should be a furniture maker,’” says Downs. “I was 24 years old; I wasn’t married; I didn’t have any kids or a mortgage. I had nothing to lose. So I went for it.”

It turned out that Downs had a talent for designing furniture, and he taught himself how to build what he designed. The first year, he was a one-man shop. For the next 17, he grew his company steadily. He consistently offered furniture in the Shaker- and Mission-inspired styles, and people continued to buy. “I was able to get the business to the point where there was never a day when the better idea was to shut the door rather than just keep going,” says Downs. “It could’ve gone better, and it could have gone worse. I’ve always been in that middle ground, where you may as well keep going at it.”

Then along came Google. “No one—including myself—understood how the Internet was going to change things for a little company like mine,” he says. 

In 1999, Downs was commissioned to build his first conference table for Philadelphia-based Lippincott publishing company. The specs called for a 24-foot-long, 5-foot-wide table of bird’s-eye maple and curly anigre woods. He named it the Lippincott Table and posted a picture of it on his website. 

Downs began to notice a spike in the number of requests for conference tables. As it turns out, the Lippincott was one of the top results when someone Googled conference tables. “As the calls kept coming in from all over the world requesting conference tables, we realized it was better to specialize in one product,” says Downs. “There was more money involved, and clients aren’t as fussy.”

But not even Google could save Downs from the recession that came in 2008. By then, Downs was married with children and a mortgage. But while his corporate clients were laying off employees and cutting expenses, Downs never failed to make payroll—though, some years, he didn’t pay himself. 

Unlike thousands of other small businesses, Downs survived the recession. “But what’s next?” he wondered.

 

One day in 2009, Loren Feldman received an email from Paul Downs. Then the small-business editor at the New York Times, he was running an online blog series called You’re the Boss, written by various small-business owners across the country.  

“I’m enjoying your series, but you’re missing the perspective of a business owner who’s running a business that’s failing,” Downs told him. “I’d be interested in telling my story.”

The frankness of the email was refreshing to Feldman. “I get approached all the time by business owners who’d like to contribute their stories,” he says. 

But it often becomes apparent that they’re more interested in “the platform to tell people how great they are,” says Feldman. “There has never been one iota of that with Paul. He’s hoping that his mistakes and struggles might help other business owners.”

Not many people, for example, would willingly share their annual income in a forum as public as the New York Times. Downs did it not once, but three times while writing his blog. “There wasn’t any negative consequence to doing it,” says Downs. “There’s a strange unwillingness to talk about what it’s really like owning a small business. It was very eye-opening for many people.”

Downs cultivated a loyal following of readers who appreciated his transparency. “He shared that process in a way that few people are able to do,” says Feldman, who’s now a senior editor for Forbes, where Downs is a contributing editor. “If he wrote a post asking for advice, he’d get a lot of well-intended suggestions from smart people who cared whether his business survived. I haven’t found anyone else who’s as open and honest about real life in the trenches and the struggle to survive running a small business.” 

A fan of the blog, Paul Lucas encouraged Downs to write Boss Life-. Then Lucas became his agent. The book takes readers  on a month-by-month journey through 2012 at Paul Downs Cabinetmakers, artfully documenting the daily uncertainties of running the small company. Each month begins with Downs outlining how much money he has left in his bank account, along with new-contract values and other relevant numbers. 

It’s a story that can’t be misunderstood. Readers feel the stress of Downs wondering if he’ll nail the contract he’s banking on to make budget, or whether or not he’ll have enough money to make payroll. You can’t help but cheer him on when he makes it through another month.

“I think people have the impression that small businesses are the easy path to riches,” says Downs. “When you start telling people what it actually looks like, it’s a real shock to them. The fact that it’s unrecorded to me is really distressing and surprising, because we’re looking to have small businesses succeed. That’s a good thing for our society.” 

Since writing the book, Downs has had countless business owners thank him for explaining the reality and not sugarcoating it. Obviously, not everyone cares about custom conference tables. Yet anyone who owns a small business can relate to the issues and challenges that Downs writes about. “The experience of feeling overwhelmed and feeling slapped around by the outside world—along with the stress of having all your own money at risk—is universal,” says Downs. 

But it’s certainly not all bad. “We need small businesses in this country,” says Downs. “If you can get one going, it’s a wonderful way to spend your life. If you can invent a place where people come to work and treat each other well, and you can make a decent living, make something the marketplace is satisfied with, and you have happy customers, what could be better than that?”  

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