All I Need to Know About Running a Boatshop I Learned in a Band

Editor’s Note: While some people are lucky to have one great passion, John Harris has two: boatbuilding and music. The owner of Chesapeake Light Craft, the Maryland company featured in Professional BoatBuilder No. 152, studied music in college but before graduating in 1994 he lined up a job repairing old wooden boats. Today, his company is one of the most successful kit-boat suppliers in the world, selling more than 2,000 units annually. As Harris explains below, his success is thanks in part to lessons he learned in the music business.

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A few years into my boatbuilding career, I reached a fork in the road: I had an offer to become a full-time musician. I stuck with wooden boats because it paid more, which tells you a great deal about a musician’s prospects. After that, I persisted in music semi-professionally, gigging once or twice a week until my daughter was born and the trombone was exchanged for playgrounds and Legos.

johnharris-jenedneyJen Edney

Boatbuilders, like musicians, never stop learning. “If you cringe when you hear someone referred to as a ‘master boatbuilder’ you’re an honorary musician,” writes John Harris, owner of Chesapeake Light Craft (above with trombone).

In moments of artistic darkness I ponder the preposterous expense of my music education, and wonder if all the years of music were wasted. But those years of orchestras, church gigs, jazz quintets, wedding covers, and indie rock bands have left me with indelible lessons about making a living as a working artist. And all boatbuilders are artists, as far as I’m concerned.

Getting good is very hard work. If you cringe when you hear someone referred to as a “master boatbuilder,” you’re an honorary musician. Musicians know that once you reach professional proficiency, after 10,000 or 20,000 hours of practice, only then do you realize how little you know. No one ever truly masters music, or boatbuilding. The best keep challenging themselves to grow as artists.

You need chops. One of the things I love about music is that there are no posers, at least not in the realm of classical and jazz. Even nonmusicians can tell if you suck. Thus, something like a true meritocracy exists in music. If you’ve got chops, you get work. If you don’t, you won’t. The need for real, indisputable chops forces musicians to confront their weaknesses in ways that many professionals never do. The discipline of practicing, of being self-critical, of being determined to improve carries over from my music to my boatshop. I actively seek design and building projects that challenge me even when there isn’t a clear profit objective.

Take chances. As a kid I was unusual for my willingness to do a lot of free gigs if I thought it was a good hang and I might meet better artists. I played coffeehouses for gas money in order to network with the guys getting gigs. Many of those jobs were dreary duds. A few connected in life-altering ways. Even with an established career as a boatbuilder, I still do a lot of volunteer and loss-leading work, and occasionally score a networking home run that pays off for years. You don’t get to cherry-pick your gigs until you are old and revered, and I might never be either. So swing at all the balls.

Know how to be a leader and a follower. Nothing in music taught me more about life than watching great bandleaders on the stand. They know when to give concise direction, when to be politicians, and when to get out of the way of the music. Perhaps the most valuable lessons came from watching talented leaders grab their axe, take a seat with the rank and file, and blend in seamlessly when that’s where they’re needed most. The leader of an artistic enterprise, like a boatbuilding shop, needs to be impresario one moment, 5-Minute Manager the next, and a few moments later just another working boatbuilder.

Put your best people out front. There’s a species of bandleader who wants to give weak players the chance to solo, y’know, so they can get some experience. Don’t do it. “Practice at home” is the professional musician’s refrain. A band might make hundreds of first impressions in a single night. People will remember the guy who can’t play in tune. Whether you’re at a boat show, running a showroom, or meeting clients, you want the guys with the knowledge and the talent, along with your very best examples of boatbuilding, making all those first impressions. Is that boat not ready for the boat show? Skip the show or leave the boat at home. That’s smarter than making a lousy impression.

The steady guys keep the gigs. You know the type. Movies are made about them. Wildly talented, all the chops in the world, but they’re late to the gig, drink too much, and antagonize their bandmates. Boatbuilding, like music, is a really hard way to make a living, and there’s just no room for flakiness. Value the people who are “merely” very good, who show up every day and get things done. Tolerating talented head cases—instead of sacking them—is going to demoralize everyone. Let them drag down some other band.

Sweat the small stuff. When you hear the London Philharmonic, the reason it’s perfect is that all those musicians are getting a thousand tiny details exactly right. The Beatles? Same thing: George Martin and the boys always made sure the pieces fit together perfectly. Great art is always about the details, and you fumble them at your peril. From Steve Jobs to Yo-Yo Ma, from Nautor’s Swan to L. Francis Herreshoff, it comes down to not considering any detail too small to be worthy of time and attention. [Sweating the small stuff is also highly recommended by our technical editor Steve D’Antonio. Read his column about it in Attention to Detail.—Ed.]

Stagecraft matters. When you think of musical “stagecraft,” the overwrought antics of pop stars might come to mind. But at the level of the workaday musician, it means a host of small things that add up to a polished performance. Being dressed neatly and appropriately; not shuffling your music or fumbling for gear between songs or grimacing at mistakes; avoiding overlong or inarticulate introductions to songs. In the boatshop, this is what I call “presentation”: making sure that the packaging, documentation, display, and press materials of my boats match the quality of the product. This can be expensive and time-consuming, but presentation issues are a major line item on quality control checklists at my shop.

I loved the music. I loved the stage, the people, and the business. At Chesapeake Light Craft, a creative organization with about the same head count as a swing band, I draw on my musical experiences every single day. I wish more boatbuilders thought of themselves as artists, and more musicians thought of themselves as businessmen.

Article Category: Yards