The Time We Almost Set Our Office on Fire

The Time We Almost Set Our Office on Fire

Looking down from our desks, you could see the light from downstairs between the planks of the wood floor. Holding your hand over the gaps was like holding your hand over an open freezer. Long underwear and house shoes and coats and hats were office-appropriate attire.

Even maintaining a baseline habitable temperature was more than we could afford. Our first electric bill was staggering. We bought an old wood stove from a friend. We paid another friend to install it. We bought a rick of wood, and were ready to go.

Not knowing exactly what we were doing, we bought several rounds of green wood (wood that isn’t sufficiently aged). We didn’t have a great way of getting kindling, and we quickly burned through our back supply of newspapers and magazines. We needed a better way to start the fire in the morning. It often took an hour to get it going.

Luckily, there was an army surplus store across the street. We went over there to buy fingerless sniper gloves and saw the solution. Emergency fire starters. They were individually wrapped in matte green aluminum foil about the size of a granola bar. The starters were bright purple. I can only assume they were mostly napalm. They ignited in any condition and stayed lit. We had to have a policy that you could only use a third of a bar, or it started too fast and too hot.

It worked great when we had the purple magic. Instant warmth, no worries. Prop your feet up, sip your coffee. Turn on the high-pitch whine of the stove’s nearly exhausted fan. And feel the warmth filter through the smoke-tinged layers of clothing.

The trouble is that we didn’t always have the napalm sticks. And winter is long. We didn’t take the time to cut and store the kindling. We didn’t take the time to stockpile newsprint. And, as we started to hire employees, we didn’t teach them the skills and discipline we had learned because we couldn’t bother. So, we often ended up with an office that was cold and filled with the acrid smell of frustrated fire-making.

Don’t confuse convenience with cutting corners.

In the beginning, we rushed from one thing to the next just to get by. But that isn’t sustainable. And the rush ends up being a waste of time.

If we had stopped to think about the things we were doing. Rewriting proposals each time. Looking for an HR document that should have had a place. If we had built in appropriate processes at the beginning, we would have been able to grow quicker, do better work, and have a less stressful environment.

We had to go back and relearn all sorts of bad habits so we didn’t engrain them in the company’s culture. And bad fire-starting is just one of those habits.