Survive in the new economy by being flexible

davidgettsI can still remember as a child, whining to my parents about my big brother and simply being told to “shape up or ship out.” I hated those words. Being the youngest, it always felt like I was the one being picked on. I was only acting up out of self-defense. Why was I always the one who had to get his act together? Shouldn’t it be the one who knew better and was inflicting the pain? Since I was the underling, I didn’t hold the power. I was just looking for a way to coexist with those that did. And, decades later, I find myself in the same boat. Aside from being an adult, the only thing that has changed is the cast of characters.

Playing the role of my big brother is the government. It’s his bat and ball so we play by his rules.

His snarky friends are being portrayed by the moneyed power brokers. After all, the way they cater to Big Brother and manipulate the rules to benefit them is a spot-on portrayal of how my big brother ignored his little brother’s pleas about his friends’ actions.

And, finally, my consumer clients have landed the role of Mr. and Mrs. Parent for their unbelievable ability to “guide” me in the intricacies of diplomacy. Like my parents, they just have a special way of telling me how to get along with Big Brother, his friends and even them. Their sage advice is direct, to the point and comes across as a mandate, rather than the hopeful encouragement ideal parents exude.

The new world order

None of us want to believe, or admit, that we’re entering into a new economic order that will further separate the haves from the have-nots. But when you look at how the government, who is here to protect us, worked in concert with the money brokers who monetarily benefited from the intentional destruction of our economic stability, it makes you wonder. Regardless of what really happened, we can confidently say that the old economy we operated under for decades is gone. No one knows if it will ever return, but I think it’s safe to assume that if it does, it’s many years away.

Like it or not, we are operating under a new economic system. The glut of available work has been replaced with modest and conservative projects. It really doesn’t matter at this point how it happened, but how we respond to it. If it was up to us to fix the economy, we would delve into the causes and solutions to avoid it from happening again. But it’s not. We’re the little brother further down the food chain in the business of creating wooden objects. Our main concern needs to be how to survive and adapt to the new economy, not fix it. I’m not going to say “shape up or ship out,” but I am going to say if you don’t learn to accept this “new world order” you’ll be left behind to fend for yourself.

The aftershock

The economic blast we have encountered affects us all. Much like the location of an aftershock or how close you are to the blast zone, how it affects each one of us will be very different. Among the infinite variables we could include are how long you’ve been in business, your business model/niche and how financially diverse you are. Let’s look at a these things in more detail.

If you’ve been in business for less than 10 years, this new order will seem much different than the business owner who’s been around for 30 years. The general rule of thumb is the longer you’ve been in business the firmer your foundation, hence the stronger your company and better ability to weather a storm. But we’ve witnessed many large and long-standing companies take a nosedive in the last few years, puncturing holes in that theory. And even though statistics support the fact that businesses less than five years old fail at an exponentially higher rate than those older than five years, that’s no guarantee that they’ll fail sooner in this economy than an older one. Consider the fact that younger businesses are more resilient to change than more-established ones. They’re also not as prone to fear since they haven’t seen the effects of a downturn. Now, obviously this can swing both ways. But you get the point.

What is your business model? How about the niche you’ve created? Are they both compatible to this new economy laden with fear? Regardless of what you are building, one of the most important things you can inject into your business model is resiliency. If your product and methods are unable to rebound along with an uncontrollable economy, you’ll fail. You cannot concentrate on the things you cannot change, but on those that you can. The economy is bigger than all of us combined. So it’s a waste of time wishing for how things should be, even if you’re correct. Accept the way it is and order your model to comply.

The same goes for your niche. For instance, I’ve had a great niche for many years creating custom wood projects. Even though I worked primarily for people whose lifestyle was not affected by the economy, these projects dried up when their “play money” disappeared. In order to survive, I took the skills from my previous niche and applied it to smaller, common-man projects.

Like the old saying goes, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. How financially diverse are you? It’s hard to be successful, much less survive, if you don’t have financial security. Like many craftspeople, I’ve invested a large amount of money and time into my business under the assumption that it’s the only way to grow and move to the next level. Although that can be true, it can also work against you if your business is drying up. You have to remain somewhat liquid in order to sustain yourself during dry times. Ignoring the signs I saw in 2008, I continued to press forward with my business goals, only to have it bite me in 2009. I got caught investing in my company’s future with contracted jobs that were later lost when my clients got nervous and pulled the plug. If not for prudent financial planning, meager as it was, I would have sunk along with hundreds of others. The single biggest lesson I learned? Diversify by spreading the investment dollars around.

How to manage

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and again. Do not get caught up in the fear talk that you hear. Pay attention? Yes. But don’t get consumed by those things that you have absolutely no control over. Years ago, I worked with a hypochondriac. From the first day I met her, I knew she was someone to avoid. You could not get past one sentence without her incessant complaining of what germ she had and the fear of what she might contract. It paralyzed her and all those who made contact with her. The fear of things she had no control over became her prison. And it made her so vile no one wanted to visit her in that solitary jailhouse she called home.

I believe in the Golden Rule: treat others as you would like to be treated. However, Big Brother and his friends hold to a different definition of the time-tested rule that states, “He who has the gold makes the rules.” Just because I don’t like this second definition or live by its premise, does not mean it will change how others live. If I choose to ignore this axiom I’ll only be hurting myself, because in ignorance I’ll allow myself to get taken advantage of by those who hold the coin. Therefore, rather than becoming paralyzed with fear through obsession or become blinded by ignorance, we must learn to accept what we cannot change and change those things that will allow us to coexist with what we have no control over. In other words, lay aside the pride of doing things your way and implement those things that will allow you to prosper in this new economy without compromising your core beliefs.

David Getts is a certified kitchen designer and owner of David Getts Designer Builder Inc. in Seattle.

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue.