The Four Legged Stool

Hello again friends,

While scrolling through my news feed on Facebook, I happened across some comments on a post shared to a woodworking page I follow that really irritated me.  I don’t usually pay too much attention to the comments because apparently having a miter saw and an air compressor in your garage building pallet projects on the weekends makes you a some sort of woodworking guru. I’m not knocking pallet projects mind you because there are some amazingly talented hobbyists out there. What I am saying, though, is that there is no shortage of bad advice out there from a lot of inexperienced hacks that couldn’t tell you the difference between red oak and walnut. 

Anyway, to make a long story short, the Facebook post was from a guy showing off a recent project he completed using a CNC.  The comments that got to me were along the lines of; “That’s not woodworking”, “That’s nothing but a fancy piece of firewood”, or they remarked how the finish wouldn’t last because they never heard of it so it must be junk.

Okay, now unless you’re an old timer or purist that only uses hand tools to make furniture for the Vatican, who the hell are these guys to throw that kind of judgment and hate around?  For the record, the item featured in the Facebook post was very well done and the finish the guy used was a pretty decent professional grade finish only sold at a nationwide paint store chain.

I have to admit that it really, really irritates me when I hear guys bashing another guy for his work. Especially when he’s just trying to make a living and doing a pretty decent job at it. If you’re a purist, I can understand your disdain for the use of modern equipment and I give you credit for having the kind of patience needed to rip a 16’ board with a hand saw. However, for a lot of small business owners the name of the game is putting food on the table. Not all of us are lucky enough to sell our products to the Pope, so we have to rely on the average Joe consumer to buy our products. One thing that is certain is that not everyone has the same budget when they go looking for a product.  If they did, there wouldn’t be a need for generic brands.

I’m going to go off on a tangent for a little bit but I promise I’ll tie it all back together.

When I was young, my mom would take us to the auto repair shop to hang out while they would work on her car. On the wall there was a plastic sign that read;

“We offer 3 services; Good, Fast, and Cheap but you only get to choose 2 of them at a time. Good and fast isn’t cheap. Good and cheap isn’t fast. Fast and cheap isn’t good. Choose wisely.”

I’ve seen a number of variations of that sign over the years and now when I see one it reminds me of one of the most profound lessons I ever learned as a business owner. I don’t remember the exact date that I heard this next piece of advice but was far more recent than I care to admit. It came from an old timer whom I respect very much.

The Four Legged Stool

The old timer and I were standing around one of his job sites admiring some of the work that was recently completed. I complimented him on the quality of the work and we continued looking around. Then he turned to me suddenly and asked, “Do you know why a farmer’s stool has only three legs?” I was kind of surprised by the random question and figured it was some sort of joke. So I thought about it for a few seconds and told him that no, I really didn’t know why. He then continues with, “Back in the day when farmers used to milk cows by hand they would use a small stool to sit so they didn’t have to kneel or sit in the manure. The stool would typically have three legs because it was more stable than stools with four legs that had a tendency to warp and rock back and forth and even tip over on occasion.”

I must have had a strange look on my face because the old timer just smiled and continued with; “You know, just about every business operates like a four legged stool. The legs represent service, quality, value, and reputation. Four legged stools will typically rest solidly on two of the legs and rock back and forth temporarily resting on one of the other two legs. Reputation is everything to a business so you don’t ever want to sacrifice your reputation. So, the customer must choose two of the three that remain. If a customer wants value they will have to sacrifice either quality or service. If the customer wants quality they will have to sacrifice either value or service. Naturally, the customer wants their product so rarely will a customer sacrifice service. So the only real choice is whether they want value or quality. As the business owner, repeatedly rocking back and forth can be dangerous because you risk tipping over. It’s okay to rock back and forth to satisfy a customer but you have to make sure that the third leg is resting solid or you will tip over and end up covered in shit.”

I can’t even begin to tell you how deeply I took that conversation to heart. The moral of the story here is that there are basically two kinds of customers out there. As the business owner, you have to define your market and decide which customers you will provide service to and which ones you won’t.

To illustrate this a little better and tie this all together we’re going to need to do a little arithmetic using some story problems and comparisons.

Becky and Sara are neighbors and they’re looking for quotes on two identical custom exterior entrance doors with wildlife scenes carved into them.

Quote #1

Tom is a purist woodworker that only uses hand tools and his shop rate is $50 per hour. For each door, the material to make it will cost $500, and, it will take Tom 100 hours to build the door and carve the scene into the door by hand.

What is the sale price for each door?

Answer: $5500

Quote #2

Bob has a modern woodworking shop that uses CNC machines and his shop rate is $150 per hour. For each door, the material to make the door is $500 and it will take Bob 20 hours to build the door and carve the scene using a CNC router.

What is the sale price for each door?

Answer: $3500

Becky’s budget was $6000. She has the cash and loves the idea of a hand carved door so she agrees to Tom’s price.

Sara’s budget was $4000. She doesn’t have as much cash as Becky. She really loves the design and needs to replace her existing door, so she will need to finance the door and agrees to Bob’s price.

Now there are a couple of different ways to look at this scenario when you try to make the comparison.

Both women were looking for the same exact same product only with different budgets. Then, even though different techniques were used to make the doors, the finished products in this scenario are identical.

So, is this an apples to apples comparison? Well, no. Both women received proper service, but Becky wanted quality, and Sara needed value.

If you’re wondering how this ties back to the beginning of this novel, it’s like this; Because Tom is a purist and only uses hand tools, he may look at Bob and make the claim that Bob isn’t a woodworker and he may even accuse Bob of stealing his customer. The reality is that Sara was never really Tom’s customer because she needed value and Tom’s business is based on the idea of quality even though the finished products were identical.

People keep misunderstanding their own businesses and customers, and, they keep hating on each other because of it. Tom might not consider Bob to be a woodworker because he uses modern equipment but if you apply that same argument to other aspects of life we would never make any advancements as a society. Personally, I think Tom is a hypocrite because if he really was a purist, he would be using stone and bone tools to make his door instead of hammers and chisels.