“In college I wasn’t aware of the realities. You have no context for what it takes to run a business, what kind of pressures and responsibilities there are dealing with customers,” recalled Scott Andrus, founder of ON3P Skis. “In college I had no context for what it takes but I knew it was something I really enjoyed.” That something was, of course, making skis, and by senior year he knew he was obsessed with it. “It was kind of one of those now or never things. I was 21, 22, didn’t really have any responsibilities, so if this is going to happened now is the time.”

Andrus took the plunge as soon as he graduated in 2008 from the University of Puget Sound (with a degree in biology). It was a classic garage startup in Tacoma, Washington, with Andrus building the machinery to then build the skis. Although the economy was in the midst of the Great Recession, in 2009 he relocated the company to Portland, Oregon. Primarily it had been a solo act but that summer Andrus found warehouse space for a modest factory, and brought in two friends as employees. One dropped out before a year was out. Andrus and his remaining buddy lived at the shop, working 120-hour weeks. “It was pretty brutal,” he said matter-of-factly. “The grind and figuring things out was tough. It wasn’t particularly successful because a lot of the skis were late getting to customers, and the quality could’ve been better.”

We asked Andrus what he did as a young guy to keep himself balanced and focused with the work-life balance completely out of whack? “I don’t think you can be balanced, personally,” he answered. “I don’t think I’m balanced now. I still work six or seven days a week. I work 12-hour days sometimes, most days during the week it’s 12. I think when you own a business it’s pretty hard to have a work-life balance, and I don’t think I’ve necessarily found that. The reason we’re here is that I’ve basically dedicated 10 years to this. I don’t really take vacations and sometimes that’s been hard. You take steps forward and things start to improve and you see tangible results – that kind of becomes the goal, to continue to get better and better. I really enjoy what I do, that is key.”

Little Steps Inside the Echo Chamber
Knowing that many young entrepreneurs want to leap forward, we asked Andrus if those modest steps forward were enough for a 23-year old? “It’s hard to know because you’re in an echo chamber,” he acknowledged. “Some of the things we think are good might not be good externally. So sometimes I think it’s hard to know when something good happens, whether it’s fruitful.” Clearly aware of the isolation factor, he added, “I don’t really have a lot of friends outside of ON3P. This is just what I do and that’s been the case for a long time. It was important to have that friend (early on) because you need someone in the trenches with you. Yeah, it was important to have people who were hungry and willing to work egregiously, long hours. It can be pretty draining emotionally and physically.”

How They Hire Employees –Trial Test
Egregiously long hours begs the question of how do you find someone willing to work those kind of hours? “I don’t have the right answer for that because we’ve had successes and failures,” Andrus admitted. “The most successful hires we’ve had is through internships.” So someone comes in for a short stint and ends up being a good fit. Andrus has applied that lesson to their hiring process: “We’ll do trial days where you are not necessarily hired but you do get paid. We’re not just hiring you, you’re hiring us and we need to get buy in. If you don’t buy into what you’re going to be doing for us, you’re just not going to care. We make sure people coming in understand extremely well what the job is.”

Rather than bring a particular skill to the table, Andrus explained, “It’s been personality fit into culture fit, and training, which is harder to hire for. We’re a motley bunch. I was in biology. Our production manager has a masters in teaching art. We don’t even have a trained engineer here right now. We do a lot of problem-solving. There’s no template for building skis, running a factory, building equipment. We’ve built all of it so we’ve had to have people who are great thinkers and problem solvers, and can take an idea and make it tangible. One cloth that we are all cut from Is that everybody here is a skier, which can be hard because it’s a small set of sample people.”

Learn to Earn and Managing Employees
ON3P didn’t have hourly employees until about two and a half years ago. Prior to that everyone was salaried – a small crew grinding long hours. Now Andrus wants to tie compensation to experience and skill as part of a “learn into earn” program. “Now they are paid by training level,” he explained. “Once you hit a level you need to maintain it to keep that pay, so it’s a much shorter feedback loop than if you were to give monthly or quarterly reviews. It’s essentially a financial incentive to get the training and stay at a level of production.”

This will also result in the workforce being more cross-trained, which can help prevent injuries and prepare team members to step into another job if someone is out – all critical to a small manufacturer. Consider that of the team of 13, three were out with various health issues when we spoke with Andrus. “The impact is felt,” he observed. “It’s really frustrating. With these guys hurt we’ve had to slow our production down by like 20%. One of them broke his collarbone mountain biking. It’s not that I don’t want you mountain biking, you have to live your life. But I need to do a better job conveying the affects that kind of stuff has on us. It’s tangible, it’s going to cost us tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue.”

Focus on What You Can Change
“After doing this for so long you get pretty good at rolling with the punches and realizing you can control only so much and you can’t beat yourself up or get angry over things that are out of your control. I had no control over him breaking his collarbone but I can control what’s happening on the floor.” During tough times like this, his message to employees is straightforward: “It’s going to be okay, but yes, it sucks. Here’s why it sucks. I tell the managers under me if it’s out of your control, care about what you can control and make that better. Move on. There are so many things that are going to happen that you can’t change, so focus on what you can change.”

The mental fortitude comes partly from his dad, a seasoned businessman who serves as chair of ON3P’s board. “I work pretty closely with him. In terms of business, everything I’ve learned has been pretty much from him on that front. He’s a huge resource. The biggest thing he’s always espoused is the mental fortitude to push through. There’s been points when you question whether it’s worth continuing to work this hard and have this much stress. People who succeed grind it out. That’s what success is, making it work.”

In dealing with HR issues – often a conundrum for young entrepreneurs – the elder Andrus has also been able to provide guidance: “He offers a really good sounding board for personnel issues, which is probably my weakest area. I work with a lot of people who are my friends and they can be really difficult at times, both positive and negative. You know, when do you use a stick and when do you use a carrot? When you’ve never managed anyone and suddenly you’re managing a company and people and customers at 23 you don’t really know anything.” Andrus added that how to use the carrot and stick varies by person. His hope is that the “learn to earn” program takes some of the intangibles out of managing employees.

Hanging with Cats Can Be Like Yoga
While Andrus clearly has a passion for what he does, ten years in the grind continues – so what does he do to recharge his battery? “I hang out with my cats,” he told us. OK … we know pets can be cathartic, but what is it about the cats? “Let’s say if I have a bad day and I am going to get out of here early, they’re easy,” he explained. “You don’t have to do a lot. You are there and they love you because you’re there. For a couple hours you can just kind of hangout. You don’t have to think about the angry customer you just had, or the manufacturing problem you can’t solve. It’s like the reason people do yoga. It takes my mind away from the issues at hand and let’s me clear my head a little bit.” He also reads.

But then he concluded, “I’m at work long hours so sometimes I get home, make a little dinner and go to bed. Taking quiet time for yourself and not thinking about work is something that happens rarely. When I was younger I might’ve needed more outside outlets, but I’ve a better ability now to deal with some of the stress so I don’t necessarily need outlets like I used to.” Andrus also says he doesn’t really need friends outside of work: “When you’re around people as much as we are around each other, they inherently become friendships. I think most small businesses end up becoming somewhat like a family environment. Everyone knows each other too well. Everyone knows each other’s idiosyncrasies. If I were going out on Friday night it would be someone from work.”

In a weird way, or maybe not so weird, it was refreshing to hear that someone grinding like Andrus is quite happy and satisfied with his life, rather than struggling to find some kind of work-life balance. “There’re times I wish I could do more, that’s certainly the case,” he said, “but my fulfillment comes from work. I’m not feeling like I’m missing anything personally. There’s nothing I long for. I have new challenges every day. We do our best to solve those challenges and that’s what I like to do.”

Everything Takes Much Longer than You Expect
In wrapping up our talk, we asked him if he had a couple of tips for a 22-year old looking to go into business for themselves? “I think the hardest thing for me was just the realities. You build a business plan, you think you’re cool, and you think we’re going to grow 50% a year for ten years. I think for people who have never run a business or marketed a product, it’s much more difficult than it looks. I was really naïve as to how long things take and how things go, the time requirements for handling customer claims, customer email, bookkeeping, everything. It takes a long time to build a brand. Even now there’s people in Portland who don’t know we’re here. It’s a big world out there. There are a lot of competitors. And I think that’s the biggest thing for me. Then there’s money. You’re going to spend way more money than you think. Everything costs more than you think. Overall I guess my message would be patience. You have to realize you can only do so much in a given amount of time. It takes time to build a brand that you can feel proud of.”