Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Pulling the Plug (long)

Before I moved to Bend (from San Diego county) my business was doing all right: it was throwing off enough cash to take care of my share of the bills with enough left over to play with. When I announced my intention to move to Oregon, a key employee, a guy who had been with me since 1987, chose not to tag along. He and his wife owned a house, they had kids in school, and he wanted to stay close to, and take care of, his elderly parents.

So before the move, I placed ads in the Bulletin and on craigslist for a replacement. I waded through a lot of electronic technician wannabees. It was kind of like advertising for a master carpenter and getting responses from people who knew how to hammer a nail. But one fellow looked to have the needed skills, a local named Robert Hunt.

So I hired him. This would have been around September of 2008.

Bob understood electronics, but he didn't have the depth of knowledge that my former technician had about the products. My designs were like Stradavarius violins: not in the sense that they are timeless, but that they are expensive, sound really good; and quirky: needing continuous maintenance. Perfection isn't quite good enough for me or my customers.

Bob had to learn on the job and, as a result, his work was slow. It took him weeks to do a job that my former co-worker did in days.

Bob's workmanship was quite good: we got few warranty claims, I'll give that to him. But though he worked 40 hours a week, he didn't get much work done, and I was paying him hourly; so I compensated by raising prices. Demand didn't really drop off and I did manage to eke out a few more bucks a month. This helped me pay for the weeks and weeks when we couldn't ship anything while Bob was puzzling his way through the jobs.

Then, in October, 2010, just when he was starting to gain confidence and we were beginning to ship thing at a steadier pace, he was killed on the Bend Parkway while cycling with his daughter.

This was an emotionally wrenching shock. On a more immediate level it presented a real problem to my income: because without a technician, I am useless. I design products, I don't work on them. One hires Frank Lloyd Wright to design a house, not to fix the plumbing. I am hopeless with a soldering iron, incapable of pulling parts off a 25 year-old double-sided plated-through-hole circuit board without savaging it, and when I disassemble a product I am likely as not to lose an essential Sil-Pad, a rare black oxide-coated Kepnut, or the small cardboard box into which a customer lovingly and carefully packed some small, delicate part for protection from damage while shipping.

I wrote to my former co-worker in San Diego and explained my situation. He kindly volunteered to take over, and for a while it was lovely for me, because he shipped more in a week than Bob did in a month. But it wasn't so nice for him: he started to falter, he wrote about stress, about a blown lower back; and then, in March of 2012, he pointed out that he needed some rest: in addition to his full-time job at a company near Palomar Airport in Carlsbad, Calif., he had been working (out of his home, on weekends and at a nights), on my customer's products for fifteen months without a break.

A month off to rest, he requested. After the break, he said, he would be available for more work, though he would cherry-pick the jobs he wanted to do: the jobs that were the most profitable with the lowest pain-in-the-ass quotient.

I agreed. The man was a gem and without him any hope of an ongoing business was gone.

I retrenched: I waitlisted customers: the customers urgently requesting immediate attention to their needs, those who wished to order new products to be built for them; Mrs Elliott and I discussed to length how this would affect my income and my contribution to the household budget (I counted up my bills on my fingers and toes, subtracted them from my projected income) and, at age 62, I applied for Social Security.

So Thar I Wuz: Hunkered down and pinching pennies, I battened the hatches, and waited for this coming June when my co-worker would come back online.

But last week he found himself in the hospital, diagnosed with an Anxiety Disorder.

He emailed a copy of the doctor's findings to me. IOW, he brought a note from his doctor. And he said he wanted out.

"I am done," he said.

It's clear that my business is dead. It has been on life support for over a year, and I can't afford to hire another technician and pay him two, three years while he* learns on the job. There is no pulse here. Though I have some ideas for a couple of new products, without someone to service anything, no one would buy a new product from me.

Many years ago, my old man and my brothers had to make the difficult decision to pull the plug on my mother, who had been felled by viral encephalitis; and a few years after that, we had to let my father go from lung cancer.

This is like that. Letting go of my 33-year design "legacy" as a high-end audio designer is like that. I also feel a sense of responsibility to the thousands of customers who have counted on me to take care of their instruments for decades.

But I have to give it up; it's time.

So yesterday I took the first steps: I shut off the toll-free telephone number and set up an "auto-respond" message on my email ("We regret to inform you but we are no longer in business, we wish to thank you for the many years of loyalty ... "), and have changed the main page on my website to present the same message.

I have but four jobs remaining which I feel obligated to complete: a customer in Florida to whom I offered my services to help sort out a technical problem, a fellow from whom I am expecting payment to cover the cost of shipping his repaired units to his address in London via UPS Freight, a man in Turkey whose amplifier is in my possession and must be returned, and a nice man in Italy who prepaid for the upgrades on his d-a converter -- one last job which my San Diego co-worker has agreed to complete.

But after that, I am shut of this company. More importantly, I am shut of the role that I have put myself into as a designer, and of the burden of worrying about my customers. They are adults and the things I made are but hobbies.

I can finally close this chapter of my life -- and move on.

Mrs Elliott says I should celebrate this new page in my life, that the closing of one door leads to another, A friend emailed me that he shut down a business twelve years ago. He mentioned that he mourned for it for a few weeks.

I'm not yet sure how to feel about this, but whatever feelings I have, I will value.

So here's how I would like this to play out:

In 2012, four years after moving to Bend, Jack thankfully retired from being a designer of expensive stereo equipment. Jack enjoys camping, backpacking, and fishing (which he does poorly); and cannot decide which he loves more: his wife or cooking with her. 

* Electronics technicians who know vacuum-tube audio gear are always men.

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