Once again we return to our So You Want My Job  series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.
About a year ago Darren Bush left a comment on an AoM blog post which included a link back to his blog , which then took me to the website of his paddling-focused outdoors store in Madison, Wisconsin: Rutabaga . It quickly became clear that Darren was not only a good writer (he’s been published in national magazines like Sierra) and accomplished outdoorsman, but he also knew about a lot of other manly things like blacksmithing.  I asked him if he’d consider writing articles for us, and the rest is history.
When Darren isn’t instructing AoM readers on how to make their own canoe paddles , he’s very busy running Rutabaga, which offers canoes and kayaks, as well as classes on how to use them, and as I think that owning your own outdoor shop is a job a lot of guys feel looks pretty rad, I asked him to take part in our SYWMJ series. And, always the gentleman, he agreed. And as always too, Darren has some great thoughts to share not just on the practical side of things, but about life in general.
1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, etc.).
I turned 50 a few weeks ago. Funny thing is that I can still do everything I did when I was 25, some things I can do better. The difference is that it takes me longer to recover from it, and I have become intimately acquainted with ibuprofen, or as we call it in my home, Vitamin I.
I was born and raised in Southern California. I was very active in the Boy Scouts, which got me out of the city and into the forests and deserts. I have always been comfortable outside, much more so than in a room. I left California when I was 19 to serve a mission for my church in Sicily…fantastic experience. Upon my return I met this awesome young woman and fell in love. She was from this place called Wisconsin. The only thing I knew about Wisconsin was that Green Bay was there and there were cows.
I came here for my wedding reception and wondered why everyone doesn’t live here. I fell in love with Wisconsin as much as my wife. Since I can’t be a native, I consider myself a deeply-rooted transplant, and both my kids were born here. I ended up going to school here, went to grad school in New York, intending to be a professor of either statistics and measurement or Italian. Well…that didn’t go as planned, for which I am eternally grateful
I am currently the owner of Rutabaga Paddlesports, the largest single-door canoe and kayak shop in the country. My job title is Chief Paddling Evangelist, which is just as descriptive as owner. Actually, it’s probably more descriptive.
2. Why did you want to become an outdoor shop owner? When did you know it was what you wanted to do?
Well, I started working at this little canoe and kayak shop in an old grocery store on Fridays and Saturdays. I sold canoes and kayaks to people who wanted to get outside, so it was easy work and the $5.50 an hour went toward gear. I went home with more energy than I brought to the shop. It was invigorating. Still is.
I worked four 10-hour days at my real job, a statistician for the Department of Labor and later the CDCP, which was intellectually interesting but did not feed my soul, and I was not growing as a person. I am not a treading-water type of guy, so I quit my real job and moved over to the shop, which had moved into a bigger location. After a few years as a manager, the former owner made me second-in-command as he started pulling out of the business.
I turned 40 in 2002, and I realized I had a choice to make. Work for someone else for the rest of my life, or buy out the owner and make my own path. Through a series of very personal spiritual experiences, it became clear I needed to do this. The shop was not running well, the former owner was not engaged, and he needed to go. I bought him out with a friend who had been a sales rep and had recently sold his agency. He said he’d give me 5 years, then he’d let me buy him out, which I did. We saved the business from dying, kept 25 good people in good jobs, and that was that.
3. How do you go about turning a passion and hobby into a business? What kinds of skills and knowledge does a would-be small business owner need to succeed in this niche?
There are a few words in English we use to describe what we do to feed and clothe ourselves. Work…labor…job…career…vocation. But they are all very different things.
Work and labor…honorable and good. I think of Mike Rowe and Dirty Jobs and how he celebrates the people who actually do stuff. They may or may not love what they do, but at least they like it and are contributing to keeping the world functioning on a pragmatic level. Career—I dunno. Careerism always struck me as somewhat stagnant…you get a career as a whatever and keep doing it until you get the gold watch (or the pink slip). Again, it works for a lot of people.
A vocation is from Latin—vocare—to call. So a vocation is a calling. Something that the world tells you is the perfect thing for you to do, for any number of reasons. My wife has been called to teach math. She can’t not do it. But when something else calls her, she’ll answer and go do that.
But as far as turning a hobby/passion into a job, the only danger is that you lose the passion and the hobby becomes a drudgery instead of a dream. It is a danger, but it is manageable with mindfulness. To be honest, my passion is not paddling as much as it is getting other people into paddling. Yes, I love my time on the water, but there’s something about taking someone from beginner to novice, from novice to enthusiast.
A few years ago I taught a private lesson to a woman who wanted to get out on her own. Her spouse wasn’t interested in paddling, so she took matters into her own hands and bought a solo canoe. After a few hours she had the basics down and was ready to get out on her own on some local streams and ponds. We loaded her canoe on her truck, and after she strapped it down, she turned and embraced me and just held on. Close to tears, she said, “Thank you, you just changed my life.” Well, it doesn’t get any better than that.
You need three skills to run a business. First, you need to be personable and understand people. Second, you need to be humble enough to admit you don’t know everything. Third, you need to hire people who are smarter than you to do the things you’re not good at, which you know because of the second thing. If you have to be involved in every decision, you’re an egomaniac. My former partner talked a lot about sailing, how making small course corrections will lead to success. Our former owner would periodically run up, grab the tiller, and give it a good yank, usually pissed off because the boat wasn’t going where he thought it would go. He lacked all three skills.
4. What do you feel are the keys to successfully running an independent retail store and competing against the big box and online stores?
Go into it with both eyes open. The idea of an outdoor shop is sometimes better than the actual one. It’s not a dream job; it’s a lot like work. You better have a business plan that takes into account the stuff that can hit the fan. If you want to do a one-person shop, be prepared to live there. If you want to hire employees, you’re still going to be living there. Your shop is represented by your worst person on their worst day. Hire slowly, fire quickly. Hire nice people and teach them what you want them to know, rather than hiring knowledgeable people and trying to teach them to be nice.
For every dollar that comes in the front door, most of it goes out the back door. Get a great accountant. Only work with local banks. They care about your business. If you want to work with a big bank, be prepared for dealing with three tiers of suits and reams of paperwork. Local is the way to go.
As far as competing with big box stores and online, that’s tough. Our world has become obsessed with the cost of things rather than the value. It’s always about the best deal, which has come to mean the cheapest. The truth of the matter is that we’re on the water, so you can test a canoe or kayak every day, taught by people who know what they’re talking about, so you get the right thing. Box store employees are generalists if anything, and even the best ones rarely have employees that know anything in depth.
We find that creating a community is key to success as a small specialty retailer. You have to provide experiences, not just stuff. The gear is to get you to your experience, otherwise it’s just stuff. I like to tell people the most expensive piece of gear is the one that hangs in the closet because it doesn’t fit or hangs in the garage because it’s uncomfortable. Take the $399 you spent on a poorly designed kayak and staple it to a stud in your garage. It’s the same thing, really, and you can get to it when you need groceries.
As far as competition goes, be friendly with them if they’re honorable people. Most of them are. If they’re not, stay out of their way; they’ll self-destruct on their own and you don’t want to be around when the bomb goes off. And while they’re imploding, they send a lot of upset customers into your open arms.
5. What is the best part of your job?
You mean best parts, right? So many things…I love providing jobs for really good and loyal staff. We have very little turnover in the permanent full-time staff so they’ve become a pretty tightly-knit team.
I love working with really good people. After twenty plus years I have some wonderful friendships that will last a lifetime, too many to count. When I call a vendor, they don’t ask for my account number, they ask about my family by name. When I was injured in an accident, one of our vendors sent me a paddle with the signatures of all the staff. When my daughter’s appendix ruptured, the president of one of our vendors called me at the hospital to ask if there’s anything he could do. Those are the kind of people we work with in the outdoor industry.
I love designing product. A few of my staff are hard-core users and can present a design to a vendor partner and they’ll make them. I’ve designed three canoe paddles for one of our paddle manufacturers. One is their number one seller—nice to see that.
I like serving my industry to solve big-issue problems like participation rates dropping (no wonder our kids are fat), keeping the supply chain and materials green (why pollute the world in which we want to play?), and working on conservation issues with the BLM and Department of Interior. I’m a Director on the board of the Outdoor Industry Association, and it’s something I can do because I have great staff who can work without me around. I don’t boss them around; I respect them too much to do that. My GM directs their work, after which they govern themselves.
6. What is the worst part of your job?
A lot of folks say to me, “Man, your job is so cool…” They’re right, but what they don’t realize is that half of what I do has almost nothing to do with paddling. Basic business practices are what they are. Working with banks, making sure our accounting is dialed (we have the best accountant in the universe), managing cash flow, dealing with inevitable personnel conflicts, working with advertising and PR people, IT headaches, etc. It’s just basic stuff that has to be done. As great as the vendors are, there is still a lot of communication that has to go on and it takes time; time I’m not on the sales floor working with customers. That, and my boss is a jerk. He gives me much less vacation than my previous one. Seriously, it’s hard to disengage and leave sometimes, but you do it or you go crazy.
7. What is the work/family/life balance like for you?
I like the quote from James Michener about work, how a successful person doesn’t differentiate between his work and his play…to him, they’re the same thing. My family has been involved in our business, and it is our business. My wife is used to me taking calls after hours, as my cell phone is on my business card. If a customer calls me at home to ask a question, they are often surprised that I answer. They apologize, but truthfully, I like it. It’s a friendly thing to do, both to call and to answer. If I don’t want to answer, I don’t.
My wife is very understanding: I married way above my pay grade. She loves and supports me, and has no problem pulling me back when I get too involved. She is a full partner and my coach and mentor on so many things. When I wanted to leave the security of a government job for a big unknown, she was 100% supportive. She knew it would work out. When we mortgaged the house, dropped nearly all of our savings into the business, she said “This is what God wants you to do. He has your back.” And so does she.
Short answer: I sometimes really suck at it.
8. What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?
As I said, they think all I do is paddle. They have no idea what it’s like to be responsible for a five-figure payroll every other week. The stress of being responsible, not only for my family, but for the rest of my staff is considerable.
9. Any other advice, tips, commentary, or anecdotes you’d like to share?
Take your pick.
- Being normal isn’t. The best gift you can give to your family and to the world is your authentic self, not what you think society expects you to be.
- You have to have the courage to paint your own picture and live in it. If your parents want you to go to medical school and you don’t, don’t do it. They may be disappointed but in the end, they’ll be proud of you, maybe even jealous a little.
- Being smart doesn’t mean you’re wise. I know geniuses who made horrible life decisions and are miserable. They hang their hat on being brilliant. Some of the wisest people I know are in the trades. Our plumber is an artist.
- Being kind to everyone is more important than anything else…and I mean everyone. My father was a commercial real estate broker who worked in huge office buildings in Los Angeles. When I went to work with him, he always stopped to talk to the security guards. He addressed them by name. They were people to him, not a fixture at a desk.
- If someone makes fun of you for doing something, there’s a 100% chance they’re jealous of you and don’t have the courage to do it. People who do this are cowards. There are always critics and armchair quarterbacks. Ignore them, they’re impotent.
- If you do it for the money, you’re screwed. Hell, if you do anything for the money, you’re screwed.
- Learn to do things with your hands. It’s great to be a business guy, but if you have to hire an electrician to change a switch plate, you are too separated from reality.
- Never stop learning, ever.