Run a small business? Then you're keeping a big secret. C'mon... fess up. It's about the holidays. Sure, December is a festive, wonderful, joyous month. You're not completely insensitive to the meaning of the season. You can party with the best, soak up the goodwill and wipe away a tear when Will Ferrell gets everyone in New York to sing Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. You love Christmas time! At least that's what you tell everyone. But deep down inside, behind that smile plastered on your face and your wishes of "peace on earth" and "happy holidays" there's something else you're feeling. It's panic. For a business owner, the holidays churn up fears and bring out the worst of your financial anxieties. You know this is true. And you know the reasons why.
Holiday season means bonus, raise and evaluation time. Santa Clause isn't the only one putting something extra in everyone's stocking. Each year at this time, like most business owners, you probably conduct performance reviews and give out raises. You may do a special payroll run of holiday bonuses as an annual thank you to your employees (while cursing yourself for starting this tradition a decade ago). Of course you value your employees. But now you're watching the money go right out the door along with the commitments of more money that you will be paying next year and it's all you can do to hold down that eggnog.
Holiday season means working too little. Hello? Anyone there? Everyone seems to be out of the office around the second half of December. And even when they're in the office, they're not all there. Nothing's getting done. People are distracted with good tidings of joy (and getting the best online deals possible during work hours). The fact is that the week between Christmas and New Year's means everything shuts down. You can't get your own people to do a solid eight-hour day. And you can't get hold of your customers or suppliers either. Deals don't get closed, calls don't get answered and everyone tells you "let's touch base after the holidays." Ugh. It takes a good two weeks into the new year just to get things back to where they were before Thanksgiving. And that's because there's always one key buyer who takes his holiday the week after New Years... who does that??? The holiday slowdown is a costly one.
Holiday season means working too much. Sure, some of us find ourselves slowing down to a crawl during this time of year. But for many other business owners, particularly those in retail, this is the make or break season for their business. So the holidays means tons of extra hours, tons of extra foot traffic and tons of extra problems: employees calling out sick, customers shoplifting, returns and exchanges, late hours, long days and then it's all followed by a huge drop-off once December 25th is over. Then there's the adding up of sales and praying to the birthday boy (it's all about Him this month, isn't it?) that you came out ahead this critical holiday season. It's nerve-wracking and exhausting. And more than a little scary.
Holiday season means customer gifts. As if delivering a good, quality product or service isn't enough now you must give gifts. This means sending cards and chocolates and fruit baskets to customers and friends of the business across the country. You know you're going to forget someone and make them angry. Or you'll address that one card to that one wrong person who will take offense because he practices some obscure religion, doesn't believe in Santa and cuts off your business because you were so insensitive. Oh, and besides the cost of the items you're sending (6 pieces of Godiva chocolate for $25???) there's the internal cost from the time it takes to put together the list, print out the labels, add in special notes, stuff, stamp and mail. Why are we doing this?
Holiday season means holiday parties. Which means more time simply not doing work. And of course there are those embarrassing things that only happen at holiday parties (she did that? To who? On top of what?) which poisons relationships amongst your key people for years. And because it's 2014 you've always got the potential liability hanging over your head as the company who provided that last gin and tonic to the guy who got in his car and drove over a puppy on the way home. Basically, there is no real benefit for the employer at the holiday party. But it's the holidays, so you got to do it. Sleigh bells and all that...
Holiday season means the kids are home from school. Which means after working all day we can reward ourselves by coming home to a house littered with sneakers, Gatorade bottles and trash left over by our wonderful children from their carefree days of doing nothing but watching Sponge Bob, hanging out with their friends and thoroughly trashing the house. And if you have teenage or college kids you can enjoy the sounds of their festivities going on well into the night when you're trying to get to sleep at a normal time because you still have a job to go in the morning.
Holiday season means the inability to make tough decisions. You can't fire someone during the holidays. You can't be a tough negotiator during this time of year. You can't be the Grinch, the Scrooge the Angry Elf who attacked Will Ferrell before Will Ferrell gets everyone in New York to sing Santa Claus is Coming To Town. You have to be more generous, more giving and more caring. Which means all the things that you do that makes you a formidable and successful business owner (i.e. a heartless bastard) has to be put on hold for about six weeks. Smart business owners I know never make long-term decisions during the holidays. You're always negotiating at a disadvantage.
Holiday season means a depressing realization. This would be the realization that no matter how good the year was, no matter how hard we worked, no matter what goals we accomplished and what dragons we slayed, the year is over and a new year is beginning. And you're only as good as the last thing you do. The slate is clean and, come the day after New Year's we're going to have to drag our sorry asses out of bed and start from square one again. More meetings, more orders, more running around, more problems, more headaches, more of the same. Do this for twenty years and see how excited you'll be on the day after new year's.
And finally, holiday season means that stupid Paul McCartney song. No, business owners are not having a "wonderful Christmas time." Turn that damn thing off. And can't we get just a little work done around here before December 25th? Please?
Humbug! Oh, fine... have a good holiday!
A version of this column appeared on Phillymag.com.