In 2006, I had just graduated from college and was making a decent income doing construction management in Northern California. But I was socially isolated and looking for something to occupy a particular part of my energy, and so began accumulating the skills, knowledge and tooling required to build bicycle frames.
When the renovation I was working on was completed, I felt a desperate need for change. I moved back East and tried, for three years, to build a framebuilding business. It was a formative part of my career, but in the end I left it behind me. Although it has remained a fond period of my life, I have struggled to integrate the lessons I learned from it into my life - and to understand the many lessons I never learned in the first place.
In an effort to accelerate and document my struggles, I've been wanting to perform a Five Whys postmortem on my short lived career as a framebuilder. I choose the Five Whys method not because I think it's the most effective, but because it's an interesting format, and one that I hope will constrain and guide my explorations - which otherwise might tend to ramble - a bit. A disclaimer: I'm new to this method, so stick with me a little.
My framebuilding business failed. Why?
Because I gave up on it.
Because I was offered a position doing work that I considered more engaging, interesting and lucrative.
Because I had put myself in a position in which I was moderately qualified for a position setting up a prototyping shop for a small- to mid-sized company that was not expert in prototyping mechanical assemblies, and I happened (by pure luck and fortitude) to be related to two key people who ran such a company.
Because my primary interest in building my business was to develop effective methods of developing and producing interesting products, and I had organized my business to optimize my ability to do so.
Because I wanted to be compensated for my ability to analyze problems and come up with effective solutions to them, and I wanted my medium to be physical products. And the prototyping and short-run production oriented machine shop that I built for my business fit those goals nicely.
I gave up on my framebuilding business. Why?
Because I misunderstood, on a basic level, the degree to which my professional interests would be fulfilled by a career building custom bicycle frames.
My experience working on bikes in college was collaborative (I co-managed a nonprofit cooperative bike shop), and gave me an incredible opportunity to solve problems (I started working there at a highly transitional time in the business, which had slipped, in many ways, into organizational chaos). I cared deeply about the entity - both as a business and as a social venue - and I conflated my enjoyment of these two things into one.
I think the implicit assumption I was making was that I was starting a brand that would be cool, and that cool people would be drawn to it and want to work with me.
Because I was naive? I suppose the better question here is: Why weren't they drawn to me? The answer is largely that I wasn't proactive about getting my message out there - I wasn't writing, barely had a website, and didn't like hanging out in bike shops or with many bike people.
A lot of it was insecurity, no doubt. I had this idea that I wanted to be putting out a product that was fully baked, and I kept waiting for the day where I thought that what I was doing was good enough to pimp in a real way. That day eventually came, but not until I had exhausted my ability/willingness to stick through it alone, not to mention my desire to continue financing my career on debt.
On at least a few levels, I didn't get what I wanted out of my framebuilding career. Why?
There are a bunch of ways to answer that question, but the most prescient approach would seem to be one that considers the present state of my career. I am, by any reasonable definition, unemployed; and yet it's likely that I'm happier with the state and direction of my life than I have been since (at least) I left college. At the same time, I can't help but feel that I didn't make the most of my time, money, and efforts between 2008 and 2011 (the period of time where framebuilding was my sole occupation).
Well, the money I spent during that period is kind of inexcusable. I was - and remain - fond of referring to it as "my MBA," and it did teach me a lot about running a small business. But the truth of it is that I could have been much more focussed on what I wanted to learn. I made only small pivots during that three year period. Mostly, I struggled through the hardships that I was putting myself through - an experience I hope not to repeat.
I struggled through it because I didn't know what else to do. And because I had a particular idea of myself and my career goals.
Because I was short sighted, and wasn't capable of taking a long-term/objective oriented view of my life.
Because despite my deep belief in big things like happiness, reason and critical thinking, I couldn't see past the things that I had romanticized for so many years: design, physical product, and the value of engaging in an industry that is believed - by some, at least - to be environmentally friendly.
Well, I'm not totally sure what that tells me - or you, dear reader. I look back at myself during those years as being unreasonably idealistic (it's likely I inflate my idealism, FWIW), but most importantly I held basic misunderstandings about what it is that I value. I'm sure many of these persist (I've become fond, recently, of telling near-strangers that "my career is way existential these days"), and I accept them for what they are - a basic quality of the human condition. At the same time, I hope and try to enrich my understanding of what it is that makes me happiest, and when I find that thing, I do not plan on struggling with some romantic notion of craftsmanship in lieu of pursuing it.