For me, this presidential election calls to mind Henry Kissinger’s remark about the Iran-Iraq War: it’s a pity they can’t both lose. I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch a single debate, and though I’ve watched the campaign from afar, I live in Washington, DC, so there’s no point in voting either way.
So while I haven’t followed the blow by blow of the campaign, I have been opening a restaurant and bar. I was of the view that it can’t be as bad as people say it is, but I’m sad to report it’s worse. The whole process has taught me a few lessons about business, society, and government.
Government Is a Big Part of the Problem, but…
I came into the process expecting government to be an obstacle to getting the restaurant open, and I wasn’t disappointed. In one instance, a reviewer of our application for a building permit asked for the equivalent of a new cover sheet on a TPS report, then went offline for three weeks. This despite the fact that our metaphorical TPS report already had a cover sheet and we had responded within an hour of his comment to make that clear. It took the whole three weeks to chase down that reviewer and get him to remove his hold on the plan. Three weeks of lost time and lost revenue is a lot for a restaurant. And that was baked into the cake early in the process.
That said, the government was not all, and maybe not even a majority, of the problem. It’s probably unfair to refer to “government” at all, since there were 15 or 20 officials we dealt with in the process, of wildly varied degrees of effectiveness. The way around this, I learned, was simple social engineering. Out of 10 government workers, one of them knows what he or she is doing and cares about doing it right. Pound the phones until you find that person, then throw yourself on his or her mercy. People younger than me do not believe in using the phone, which is cutting down on the number of people deploying this approach, making those who use it even more likely to find success.
Every Detail Should Be Questioned, and No One Really Knows What They Are Doing
“Nothing is accurate. This is construction.” I heard this aphorism more than once. One of the hardest parts about getting older is the seeping realization that all forms of authority you thought existed–engineering, for example, or those massive architectural drawings that take forever to produce and cover a wide range of subjects in nauseating detail–are pretty much always wrong. The building code itself is essentially the Talmud, with warring interpretations covering every sentence, no matter how seemingly straightforward.
The solution here is that you have to become a mile-wide-inch-deep expert on pretty much everything to figure out how to make an array of judgment calls you didn’t know could exist. And you need to get up to speed on these important construction and engineering issues while you toss and turn from nightmares that your input will wind up contributing to one of these compilations.
Since Nothing Goes to Plan. Learn Which Battles to Pick.
As things come apart before your eyes, your instinct will be to blame your architect and/or general contractor. Marshal that instinct judiciously. Over the course of a large project, you will concede dozens of times, saving those parties thousands of dollars. If the relationship is solid, they will do the same, to your benefit. Keeping those relationships in balance, and learning where to dig in and where to make concessions is one of the hardest parts of the process.
Starting a small business is different from politics, but a central dilemma is similar: herding people with overlapping but conflicting incentives toward a goal you want them to pursue. For me it’s been a titanic struggle, but at least I haven’t had to listen to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton bicker about who’s more terrible.
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