I'm not whistling while I work. There is no more spring in my step. No more zing in my zang.

I wanted to be an artist, but I'm beginning to feel like a fire-fighter.

This business, as you know, is intense - and it always will be. We will always need those secret little pep talks we give ourselves. You know ... "This is a cool job..." "Deadlines are our friends..." "If I'm nice to my printers, they will be nice to me." The problem is that I have actually become very mean-spirited to my equipment.

I was recently at a movie with a buddy, and a tribal scene appeared where this scary little guy in a bulging-eyed mask screamed insanely and flailed about. I leaned over to my friend and said, "That's me. That was me all week."

I thought this remark would get a chuckle, not high-pressure jets of soda through his nose. I guess he saw some truth in the comment.

I've noticed that my defining characteristic has become "stressed out." Recently, another friend in the business was at my studio and I thought he had a black eye. Then I noticed both his eyes had dark circles around them. I asked, "What's up with your eyes?"

He just shook his head gently, kind of stared through me and said softly, "Burned out, man." I think I responded tiredly with something unoriginal like, "I heard that."

What's going on here? Send in the clowns, please. Where has all the fun gone? I'm not returning e-mails. I'm not calling my dear friends back. The need for sleep has trampled on my need to socialize.

And, weird things are happening. I am beginning to use words like "panicky" and "dippsy-diddly-doo" in normal conversation. That magical bath elixir Calgon couldn't touch this.

It's time, I'm afraid, for another employee.

I seriously considered this when it became evident that things were starting to slip out of control. Mistakes were being made, and customers waited too long for us to get back to them. Inventory wasn't controlled. Archiving was way behind. Our equipment and systems were very dirty, and often crashed.

We were holding it together, but at the expense of everyone's emotional well being. Sixteen-hour days are just dipsy-diddly silly.

Growing a business is always painful. Your resources have to be stretched painfully thin to finally make that jump to the next level.

Could relief be an employee away? The kind of employee I was looking for would be a professional, a designer, and a production manager who knew the business. Someone who knew the products and the equipment. A troubleshooter with amazing customer-service talent.

So basically, I am facing spending a lot of money and relinquishing a lot of control. I'm not sure I like the sound of that.

Time for a pep talk, Augie. If you hire this person, imagine all the things you could accomplish if you could be somewhat freed up from day-to-day production and management. I could study inventory, find out more about the market, actually read my financials, and pick up a few more design jobs.

I could set up good quality control. I could step back and take a few minutes to examine everything going out the door. I could bring color calibration up to date. I could spend some time with my customers - perhaps make it a point to deliver jobs to them personally.

I could finally peruse industry magazines and vender catalogs for new accessories and products. I could throw away the 182 extra MacWarehouse catalogs I've been hoarding.

I could tighten up purchasing by really using a purchase-order system. Once a week, I could actually take the time to tie each P.O. to the invoice and approve it for payment. I could create new sample books for our sales staff and our major resellers. I could get that Web site cooking. (I hang my head in shame.)

We could get archiving back up to date. I could set up a strict computer-maintenance program where we would actually run utilities once a week. Imagine a bunch of computers with empty hard drives. Let's just take a minute to bask in that fantasy.

Do you see how my sanity has grown fragile with fatigue?

Which brings me to my next, soon to be found, benefit. Maybe I could leave at 6 p.m. once a week. Maybe I can check out this whole weekend relaxation thing from time to time. Maybe I can do my own art. I better stop it; I'm getting all misty over here.

So it makes sense right? Not really. Not without a leap of faith.

If our sales remain flat at their current level, cash will be tighter than I would like it. But confidence builds business and I believe that the efficiencies gained, along with tighter controls over spending, coupled with our first real marketing push and greater customer service, will more than offset the investment.

So in the spirit of optimism and continued growth, I took a deep breath, put on the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey, looked up and envisioned the next level of business.

Then I caught a visual of a bunch of futuristic monkeys breaking up my shop. Let's just hope it's the stress.


Stephen Augustine owns and operates Eye Candy Graphics, a graphic design and digital printing shop in Denver. www.eyecandygraphics.com

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