A Well-oiled Machine

IMG_0016_3When I stepped through the front door of The Sherwood Press 24 years ago and fell in love with it hard and fast, it wasn’t because it was a small business. It was because the work that Jocelyn did here was an old, even ancient craft. And everything about that craft appealed to me, from the type, the ink, the machines, paper, smells, tactile sensations, and the chance to bring these all together in service of content and design. And I applied myself to its study, through a slow process of assimilation and insinuation — becoming a part of the press week by week, year by year. When I assumed ownership, I soon realized to my dismay that in fourteen years of working in support of my predecessor, I had not learned as much as I really needed to, in order to perform the kind of work I wanted. So I set out again to learn and re-learn so much more about the machines, about paper, about ink, design, precision, measurement, problem-solving, and on and on.

My time in the woodshed had a predictable effect. It made me good at what I do. It made me a capable printer. It made me a better designer. It made me better at understanding and communicating with my customers, and translating their needs and wishes into concrete form. And with skill came work. Every job going out became another advertisement for the press, and for me. Without any advertising, my business grew. And grew. And then grew yet more until I was really starting to struggle with the workload, having a hard time saying ‘no.’

They say it is as hard on a small business to have too much work as it is to have too little. And now I understand. You work hard and keep your head down and before you realize what’s happening you are swamped. And when you’re swamped, you risk losing everything: the faith of your customers, your energy, sanity, and your free time. And so after all these years, I am finally undertaking a whole new set of skills: the skills of being a business owner.

Business management wasn’t what drew me to this place, and I’ve talked to many small-business owners that agree: we are not drawn to cash-flow analysis, bookkeeping, accounts receivable, supplies management, marketing and the thousand other things you’re supposed to be good at and diligent about to have a successful small business. There are people out there who are in business because they love just those things. But most of us, no. Yet we all at some point have to reconcile ourselves with the hard facts. No matter how skilled we are or how much we like our customers, we have to get intimate with the cold, hard numbers and fundamental procedures of business.

My advancement through this late-dawning series of realizations has been like a whole new version of growing up. And it’s about time.

The key has been to open myself up to help. Lots and lots of help, from working with a wonderful graduate student on business development, hiring a bookkeeper, bringing on some part-time administrative and production help, and harnessing the natural skill of my partner Terry in the pressroom. I’ve also been working with the Small Business Administration on business accounting fundamentals, and hired a friend who just happens to be a Quickbooks expert to streamline and expand our use of that essential tool. And it is all very empowering — bringing the kinds of support to the business that it needs to rise to an ever-increasing demand.

I can’t pretend that this has all gone as quickly and smoothly as I like. It is busy here. Client work comes first, no matter what. But we are putting all the pieces in place to run like the well-oiled machines that sit at the heart of our business — our trusty 1953 and 1958 Heidelberg T-Platens, ‘Heidi’ and ‘Hans.’ I’m learning to see these fantastic machines as symbols of how the whole business should run: smoothly, precisely, and as fast as possible without inviting error.

I have customers who have shown an awful lot of patience as we build a more efficient business. Our deep thanks go out to them.

The Sherwood Press has gone from a one-person craft business that at times felt more like a hobby to a full-tilt letterpress and design shop getting new jobs practically every day. Like a real, grown-up business.

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Owner, designer, printer at an historic letterpress printshop

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