Every day I get around a few hundred e-mails. Most of them I glance through or delete. But a few I read religiously. One of these comes from the vintage photo site Shorpy.com.
Why? Go to the site and check it out. Go ahead and click to enlarge those vintage photos. The detail is pretty amazing, right? It's almost like I'm right there, running that bookstore in Boston in 1900 or a factory in Dayton in 1902.
Wait ... is that guy actually picking his nose in front of the bookstore? Gross.
I like to look at these pictures to remind me how ridiculous it is to complain about my business today. Thank God I'm not running a bookstore in Boston in 1900 or a factory in Dayton in 1902. The people running and working in businesses in the early 1900s put in long hours and faced challenges few of us face today. Everything seemed to be in black and white too, which must have been really depressing after a while.
I am so glad I'm not in any of those pictures. I'm particularly happy I'm not near that guy picking his nose. I'm glad I'm running a business in 2012. Despite the challenges we face, it's ridiculous to complain about our businesses. We have so many things today to help make a businessperson's life easier that previous generations never had. Let me name six obvious things.
1. My location. I don't have an office or a factory or a shop on a busy street. I used to, but I closed that down years ago. My mailing address is a postbox a mile away. I pay no rent. All of my personnel work out of their homes. My dog is sleeping not three feet from where I'm writing this. We have a hosted server somewhere in Pennsylvania that holds the databases, files and programs we use to run my business. We have a hosted phone system somewhere in California that routes our calls to our voicemail and notifies us with text messages and e-mails. We have call, video and desktop-sharing services for us to conference with each other and our clients that cost virtually nothing. I oftentimes see my kids when they leave for school and when they return. Today's small businesses can operate from just about anywhere as long as there's Internet access, proper zoning and a bar close by that offers after-work happy hour specials.
2. My smartphone. I communicate with people all over the world with this tiny device. I use it to watch videos, read books and get the latest news. I rely on it to help me find that prospective customer in Central New Jersey and a restaurant in Soho. And then a pharmacy for some Mylanta after that restaurant in Soho. I connect my smartphone to my laptop so I can be online from anywhere. I do invoicing and accept credit card payments with it. I keep it by my side at all times so that when a customer needs something (or when the Phillies score) I'm aware. Immediately. No Western Union. No mail on horseback. No trips to the post office to schedule a call. I do my "paperwork" from hotels, coffee shops and conference rooms miles away from my office. I use its text-messaging capabilities to perform all of my required parental responsibilities under the law for my three teenage kids. It is a key part of my business because it helps me run my business from wherever I am.
3. My frequent flier card. Last week I had work to do in Orlando, Fla. I took a 7 a.m. flight there. I did my work. I collected a check. I saw ten thousand tourists from China visiting Disney at the airport. I took a 7 p.m. flight back. I had takeout Chinese food (I kind of had a craving). I slept in my own bed that night. If I had chosen to stay overnight, I would've paid anywhere from $99 to $199 for a clean hotel room that included breakfast and all the HBO I cared to watch. I would not have had to share the room with a smelly bearded guy or been forced to eat whatever slop the innkeeper prepared that afternoon. If I desired, I could've rented a car for less than a hundred dollars and driven across the state in hours, not days, and with the air conditioning on. I could eat from a choice of delicious, standardized restaurants where I know the food is inspected and prepared in a consistent manner around the country. Geography does not limit my opportunities to make money.
4. My bookkeeper. I love my bookkeeper but I never really see her. She operates in an invisible world. She does all of her work from her house by connecting to our hosted server. She sets up electronic billing and payments. She drops off the odd check that I need to sign at my house. She uses software that verifies her math and creates financial reports for me at the push of a button, so I know immediately about overdue receivables or higher-than-expected expenses. She sets up automatic alerts so that I can remember to review a job costing report, call that deadbeat client and get a season pass for Game of Thrones. I don't have to wait weeks for an accountant to tell me how my business is doing. I don't have to close my eyes and pray that there's enough cash coming in next month. I know a lot of this stuff in advance. I can anticipate problems and take actions that will save me money.
I hire professionals no matter where they live and they provide me with information that I use to make quick decisions.
5. My credit card. I now go through my day with just a few dollars in my pocket. Everything gets paid for with my credit card. I work with developers in Ukraine and partners in London. I pay them immediately with my credit card. I'm given $25,000 per month to buy software, office supplies, plane tickets, dust mop slippers, Sham Wow rags, Ginsu knives, glitter tattoos, the Windshield Wonder and the odd Snuggie or two. And I'm not charged any interest as long as I pay off the balance within 30 days! Yes, I work from home and frequently have the TV on behind me, OK? And for every dollar I charge I build up a pile of points that I can use to buy more great stuff. Because one can never have enough Snuggies. I can even have more than one card offering me the same line of credit and rewards programs if I so desire. Buying things anywhere around the world for my business is simple.
6. My baby aspirin. Yeah, I take one of these every day. I've been doing this for years. Who knows if it really makes a difference? This is just one of the many things I do to try and stay healthy. We all work as hard as those guys last century. But our working conditions are cleaner and healthier. And we're more aware of the things we can do to live better: eating the right foods, getting the proper exercise, avoiding Adam Sandler movies. Our doctors, our hospitals, our pharmaceuticals, our medical technology are a million times better than they were a hundred years ago. Despite the hours we put in, we've learned the importance of balancing work and play. Many of us take the time to work out, play sports, jog, swim and ride bikes. We can even do this in the middle of the day and catch up on things later. My quality of life is better than my predecessors. Much better.
Am I stating the obvious? No, I'm stating the ridiculous. Just take a look again at those photos I mentioned above. It's ridiculous how far we've come in just a hundred years. It's ridiculous that a guy would be picking his nose in broad daylight on a busy street. And it's ridiculous to complain about our problems. Sure, we've got challenges. But would you prefer to be running a business in 2012 or 1906?
Yeah, I thought so.
Gene Marks, CPA, is the owner of the Marks Group, which sells customer relationship, service, and financial management tools to small and midsized businesses.
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