Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Industriousness, Duplication, and Oversight

A motivated business owner working the trenches him- or herself can be an absolute force of nature.  Not that owners are the Energizer Bunnies of the business world all the time; everyone has their sluggish days.  However, pound for pound and day for day, I would measure up small business owners against any comers and expect them to impress.

Recent events make this an ideal time for me to reflect on my brief tenure as front-of-house store manager at Desert Sky Games and Comics, a position I have held in tandem with my administrator role for the past half-year or so.  We haven't made the Facebook announcement yet, but one of DSG's other LLC partners, Patrick Hug, is taking over as store manager.  Patrick's previous gig ran its course and he was at a good juncture to opt out, and he asked me what sort of needs DSG had that might let him take a greater role in the business.  By an astonishing coincidence, I have been hitting the practical limits of what I can accomplish in my multiple-hats role and I have been exploring structural changes to address that problem.  Patrick's arrival creates for DSG a much more straightforward answer.

Last November, my previous store manager resigned on good terms to go on to fortune and glory in a better-paying job.  This is sort of an in-app victory condition for store owners in our industry, knowing that one of our charges made good and moved up in the world.  However, his departure left me with a dilemma.  While I have a great staff and there are some management prospects on that roster, none were in a position to advance at that time (and still none are ready yet).

I am more patient than most at this; I spent over seven years in my senior position at the state and passed on both opportunities I encountered to jump to higher-grade positions at other agencies.  In both cases, despite my boundless confidence, I knew I needed more polish before I'd be ready for the upgrades.  Years of getting old and decrepit have given me a keener sense for when an undercooked meal simply must simmer longer, never mind how hungry I might be.

Based on this wisdom, while I knew my guys were full of vigor and confidence that they could have taken the reins and got the job done, I also knew the limits of their expertise.  I would have been setting them up to fail.  Rather than do that, I assumed the store manager duties myself, in addition to my responsibilities as owner/administrator.

The good news is that the store performed decently under my expanded oversight.  Our metrics paint a clear enough picture.  Our inventory has grown from subsistence levels of Magic and little else to the full stock of most major product lines in the industry.  We just posted four of the best six months we've ever had.  And, at long last, we're seeing cost stabilization and containment.  Patrick and I were just griping about a Thursday revenue figure that we would have gladly accepted on any weeknight less than a year ago.  In fact, we need to slam on the brakes a bit on our inventory growth and build up our spending money again -- a lot of stores are going to get themselves into trouble with Modern Masters 2015, and we plan to be in a position to vulture in on that.

The bad news was that the more we grew and the more we scaled up, the worse my oversight became.  There literally were not enough hours in the day in recent months for me to give the same level of attention to all aspects of operations that I did before.  Small things stopped getting done, then medium-sized things.  It has been all I could do to keep up with the big things.  I have had something like three days off in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Fifteen.  Sure, I could have simply stayed home a bunch of times... but not if I wanted DSG as a business to get where I needed it to go.

I am worse than some managers, but better than others, at delegation.  I successfully delegated the inventory management and some degree of inventory curation to my fulfillment staff.  In general my front-counter staff has done very well running events and helping customers day-to-day.  They are at their best when customer traffic is at its busiest, which is an indicator that they give an authentic effort.  It also contrasts disappointingly with their reduced productivity during the small hours.  Some "staging" got done, some did not, some got moderate attention.  I consider it a management failure on my part that I was never able to delegate the underlying task daemon effectively.  In essence, I was able to cultivate a good squadron of role-players, but I failed to duplicate my own impact.

It will certainly take time for Patrick to ramp up to full performance, and indeed in the early going he will lean on his own subordinates to bring him up to speed on how they've been doing their jobs.  I have a long itinerary of process instruction I am going to have to convey to him.  But as an owner, Patrick is more likely to have an inner motor that fights the ticking clock, as owners do, rather than riding its course.  If this is indeed the case, once he is dialed in, DSG should hit a new acceleration level on performance and efficiency.  During the small hours, as owner, he is going to have the roving eye that looks for the next process to improve, the next piece of cost savings we can seize, the next hour of staging work that can be front-loaded to ensure that we don't miss the capture of additional revenue when it's prime time and the public arrives in greater numbers.

I'm excited for what might happen during this next step, and I'm also relieved to step away from the pole position of business continuity.  I need a break!  My way clear to that break is going to be an extremely busy month of transitioning Patrick into his role.  But sometime in June, oh man, my family is absolutely going to take a mid-week beach trip (when the hotels are cheap, natch) and watch the waves roll quietly in.  And that's something I wasn't sure I'd get to do this summer, just due to the sheer scope of operations and how they've grown.

There are enough interesting things happening in the next few weeks that I'll probably stay topical for a while, and then I'll do the Arizona Gamer story.  I'll have to break that one up into seasons or something because it did last a couple of years in its heyday.  My experiences and the people from there still continued to touch my life for years to come, in some cases all the way to the present.

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