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AZRIELA JAFFE

5.19.99  
The Entrepreneurial Life Isn't Heaven for Everyone
For some people, it's a labor of love — for others, just a job

Millions of workers all over the U.S. dream about quitting their jobs and running their own businesses. Be careful what you wish for. I decided to interview someone who, from my vantage point, has the business from hell.

Mildred (name disguised) owns a cleaning service in Lancaster County, Pa. She has 10 employees -- she calls them her "girls" -- and cleans between 65 and 75 houses a week. In case you thought that cleaning houses was an easy way to make money, Mildred sets the record straight:

"People expect so much for what they pay. I'll clean a whole house for $40 -- better than they'd ever do on their own -- and then when I'm leaving they'll say, 'You're leaving already?' I'll go to clean a house, and the door is locked, so I can't get in. But I still have to pay my girls for that time. Customers cancel at the last minute because of vacations, or they want to change their day around with just a few hours notice. They don't realize that I have a full schedule, cleaning eight houses a day on average, so it's not so simple to just change their day. I'm constantly losing girls. I haven't had a day off since last Christmas because I have to fill in for any girl who doesn't show up. I'm not just the owner in charge. I clean houses all day long."

"I'm always wrong, and the customers are always right. Customers call me and complain about things they say happened with the girls when I wasn't there. It puts me in the middle because the girls get mad at me for criticizing them or not defending them. I work my rear end off from 5:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., working seven days a week, and I'm just getting by.

"Why do you do it?" I asked Mildred. She replied, "I couldn't punch a time clock. I'm so used to being out on my own. On a good day, everyone shows up, we get into all the houses, nothing gets broken, everything goes smoothly. That feels good. Listen, it's just a job. Everyone hates their job after a while. This one is no different."

I have compassion and appreciation for business owners like Mildred who take on the kind of work that most of us don't want to deal with. For some people, their business isn't the work their soul was born to do: It's just a job with more headaches than working for someone else.

It's possible to transcend the limitations of such a difficult business. Take Joy Krause, author of the best-selling book Spring Cleaning for the Soul. A single parent, Joy cleaned houses for 20 years to take care of her kids. Although she thought it was demeaning at first, over time she realized the benefits of having such an intimate glimpse into people's lives.

Here's an excerpt from one of my favorite passages in her book, shared with Joy's permission: "By 1990, business was taking off. I hired 12 employees -- a mix of single mothers, college students, and displaced homemakers. What we lacked in sophistication, we made up for with enthusiasm. Then disaster crashed down when more than 300,000 Rhode Islanders discovered that their money had been placed in institutions that weren't federally insured. Everyone was sliding. I knew we were in the same shape, and I had no answers for the gals. Customers were closing down their businesses. I was feeling hopeless. Then one of my employees, Becky, taught me a lesson.

"Becky had become good friends with her client, Mrs. Casey. They had the kind of intimacy women share that springs from knowing where mops, toilet paper, and the dirty laundry are stashed -- the kind of closeness families share by knowing each other's special possessions and where they are hidden. After weeks of cleaning a countertop, you learn to notice new touches -- a new flowerpot, the reorganization of a cupboard -- little touches that an elderly widow like Mrs. Casey shared with no one else. That's the kind of bond we had with old-timers.

"Unfortunately, Mrs. Casey had kept all her money in the now-defunct credit union. 'I'm sorry, dear, but I'm going to be cleaning for myself from now on,' Mrs. Casey told Becky one day on the phone. Becky said, 'Fine,' and hung up. The next morning she showed up at her usual time. She cleaned Mrs. Casey's home for months -- no charge."

Some people in this world just seem to know when and how to do the right thing. Becky explained her generosity: "I figured we were totally helpless over our customers' situation. But the one thing I could control was whether I could bring some happiness into someone else's life."

Cleaning professionals like Mildred, Becky, and Joy may not get much appreciation for the pleasure they bring into other people's lives. A clean house eases the burden on a weary mother and father who don't know how they will manage to handle everything on their plate. Business owners count on these nighttime angels to prepare their places of business for the heavy traffic the next day. Mildred may sometimes despise the hardships of her work, and it may not always be satisfying to her soul, but I'm sure she's got some brownie points waiting for her up in heaven.

Have a question on how to handle the pressures of running a business and the impact on your personal life, marriage, and family? Contact Azriela Jaffe at AZ@azriela.com. Please put "BW Online question" in the subject field. Your real name will be kept confidential if you request, but please give an E-mail address, phone number, and your hometown so she can contact you for more information. Because of heavy volume, Azriela cannot guarantee that she will answer every query.

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