Running a small business is simultaneously one of the most frustrating and rewarding journeys a person can embark upon. Even more so when that small business is an auto repair shop. The highs and lows can both be extreme — one minute, you’re on top of the world and everything is going great. The next minute, the sky is falling and nothing seems to be going right.
I say this from experience: those swings can take a toll on both your health and your shop. Feeling like you’re going to lose your mind? I’ve been there. Unable to sleep because you don’t know how to make payroll? I’ve been there too.
Sure, there have been moments of triumph when it felt like the pain and frustration were worth it, but there were also the moments when I wasn’t sure if I would ever see my family again because I had lost it all.
This column comes from a personal place. I’ve been riding the roller coaster for 40 years and I’d like to share what I’ve learned about surviving as a shop owner and keeping my mental health in check.
More than 40 years ago, I started out as an apprentice mechanic and gas pump jockey, eventually working my way up to full-time mechanic. I attended automotive school at night to get certified, and saved up money while working for somebody else. When my boss decided to retire, I bought his shop.
Some of this may sound familiar to you. Unfortunately, the rest of my story may also sound familiar.
Looking back, I was so full of energy and optimism, and inexperience. I turned to professional experts to help me run my business. These consultants, accountants, attorneys, money managers, bankers and gurus were amazing for my self-esteem. They cheered me on as I grew my business and took risks. They told me how smart I was. And to be perfectly honest, they helped me make a lot of money.
What Goes Up, Must Come Down
But it was all a house of cards. My happiness, my wealth, my success. I had no idea at the time, but the roller coaster was done ratcheting up the hill and was just about to slide down the other side in a free-fall.
The year 1981 brought recession, high interest rates, and more. One by one, I lost my investments, then the cars, then the house, and then my ownership in my shop. I had to sell my stake to an employee.
I had barely gotten to enjoy the highs of success before I lost it all. For a time, I was too depressed to work, and too depressed to be a husband or a father. It’s a testament to my wife’s love that I didn’t lose my family during this time, too. Eventually, I swallowed my pride and got back to work turning wrenches for my former employee, but it would be more than 10 years before I dug out of that financial hole.
Managing the stress, disappointment and depression is half the battle, and I’ll share my thoughts on that below. Thankfully, there are a growing number of resources for managing mental health. But the other half of the battle is one you must face with far fewer resources: managing your shop after you’ve hit bottom.
That’s because it’s hard to escape the fear that it will happen again, the fear that this decision will send you to ruin. The fear of failure. For me, it led to feeling that I was undeserving of success. I had so little self-confidence, I was paralyzed by decision making, leaving me stuck with mediocre results from mediocre systems. I’ve met a lot of shop owners who find themselves right here, in that same place, who were burned enough to be cautious and afraid of change — feeling trapped and unable to improve.
The natural thing to do is to overcorrect, to take complete control and micromanage every aspect of the business. I’ve seen my share of shop owners make exactly that decision. They become integral to the shop’s success. With them overseeing every detail, the shop grows; when they look away, things fall apart.
But that kind of overcorrection is just as bad for your mental health. Shop owners who spend years doing this — unable to take a vacation for fear things will fall apart the second they step away — end up resenting the business they’ve built. They hate their job, they hate their employees, they hate their business, and they ride that emotional roller coaster just like before.
Being immobilized by fear doesn’t fix anything, and making yourself the secret sauce creates its own share of problems. So, what’s the answer?
The Basketball Example
A while back I was at the gym and saw a young man shooting some hoops on the basketball court by himself. I noticed that every time he hit a shot, he stood up tall, pushed his chest out, strutted over to the ball, and dribbled back out on the floor to take another shot.
I also noticed that when he missed, he ran to get the ball, moved quickly back out to the top of the key, and shot again.
His success and gratification about making a shot gave him increased knowledge that he could do it again and again. The more shots he made in a row, the more his self-confidence grew, and the farther out he took the next shot. He was not afraid to take the next shot and his behavior became consistent, which led to controlled results. And if he missed, he moved in a little closer and narrowed his focus to regain his self-confidence.
He was using the same steps it took me a lifetime to understand.
The thing to remember as a business owner is that you deserve success and you deserve to achieve your dreams. If you can’t see that anymore, you owe it to yourself to see a mental health professional who can help you find your worth and value again. I say this from first-hand experience. There is nothing weak about seeking help, and you owe it to yourself and your family.
Consistency Breeds Success
The secret to achieving that success is what that young man shooting baskets already knew: the key to self-confidence as a shop owner, and the key to achieving your dreams, is gaining the knowledge to establish a consistent behavior that creates success.
In the context of managing a repair shop, that means learning how to hold your team accountable.
If you’re the best at everything in your business, you’ll get only as far as you can carry your team, and only as long as you can hold out before you resent them. Training your employees to do the job and holding them accountable through measurement means you can work “on” your business instead of being perpetually stuck working “in” it.
Accountability is the surest way to know you made the right decision and can build the confidence needed to make more changes. When you make a change in your business and can see the results, you’ll know you’re on the right track.
No matter where you are in your journey with your shop, remember that you deserve success. You matter — to your family, to your employees, to your customers — and you can conquer your fear and doubt, and achieve the gratification you deserve.