Seems to me that eventually most repair techs have to ask themselves, "would I be better off owning my own business?" And that answer depends on what you really want!
I have worked in a handful of different types of shops. From Gibson's Restoration and Repair Shop, just about as corporate as you can get, working on one brand; to Westwood Music, an LA retail-heavy store, working on everything from Squires to pre-war Martins; and Dan Erlewine's Guitar Shop, a research and development heavy shop, catering to the problems no one else seem to be able to solve. And, I loved working at every single one of those shops for one reason or another... yet, I am not working there anymore!-Mostly because not every shop, including my own, is perfect. Every repair shop has its pros and cons; you just need to sit down and figure out what you are looking for and be honest about what you need.
Not everyone can or should own theirown shop- that's not me being mean, that's me being honest. Hell, I still don't know if I should have my own shop; it sure is more work than I ever thought it would be! And, that's the thing. Owning your own business, having your own shop, isn't really about making more money or repairing things how you think they should be- because maybe you won't make more money and maybe your way isn't the right way. All I am saying is, the grass isn't always greener- maybe you just aren't in the right shop for you.
Here is my best advice; it's advice that I received from a variety of well known repairers and builders. Sit down with a cup of coffee, or beer, or water- whatever libation gets you going- and write out a Pros and Cons list of your current job. Then walk away from it for a few days. Nothing you write on that list is too silly, it's just how you feel. Then, with the next part, you have to be really honest with yourself, because if you aren't you will never achieve what you want. Start by going down the Pros and Cons list and see how you have helped prolong or change each thing listed about your current job.
A Con that I can almost bet is on everyone's list is: I don't make enough money. But, you also need to ask yourself, "What have I been doing for the shop or in the shop to necessitate a raise?" Do you grab a handful of business cards right before you head out the door to a concert, so you can network and pass them out? Inevitably bringing more customers into the shop, and more money! Do you sit down with management and present ideas on how to grow the business, that won't cost them any money? Proving to them you are willing to invest your time into their financial investment! Do you take the time to organize your repair queue so that you can be the most efficient? Allowing you to get more focused, more work done and improve shop numbers! THESE ARE THE THINGS YOU HAVE CONTROL OF WHEN YOU ARE REPAIRING IN SOMEONE ELSE'S SHOP. These are some of the changes to make in order to prove your worth. These are also the things you have to do when you have your own business, regardless of if you want to or not.
Keep in mind, none of us make enough money. This is a career path, which has only in the last 30 years been recognized as an actual "job" let alone "career." Every labor heavy career struggles with pricing and payment because it isn't tangible and a lot of people have marketed guitar repair as "magic"- meaning it's easy, and that you didn't struggle to fall asleep because you can't figure out the damn buzz you've been chasing down the fretboard. So, just realize you aren't the only one feeling screwed with finances. Now, with that being said, if you really feel like your payment is unfair I suggest you keep a log of what the company charges for your work, how long the job actually took, and what you make. Take a moment to do a little research regarding the shops square footage and what that costs the company, as well as utilities, health care and benefits (if applicable), supplies and parts. Keep in mind it is easier for business-minded folks to think in years because of the ebbs and flows of business- that's just how it works- a quarterly look is good, but the data for an entire year is more concrete. Your goal here is to use math, hard facts, to prove to the company you work for that you make them more than 40% net profit- that means that with every $60 they spend on paying you, paying rent, paying taxes and benefits, paying all necessary bills including buying supplies, that your labor alone makes them $100- that's $60 to breakeven on expensive and $40 to put in their pocket. (These numbers might seem unfair, but do remember that a business is there to make a profit for the owners and investors.) IF you can prove that you make them more than 40% net profit from your labor, and your numbers are gradually trending up, then ask for a raise to reflect that. Tread lightly, and DON'T threaten to quick unless you mean it, and in that case it might not be working out anyways. (It's like a relationship. If you have to threaten to break up with someone, unless they do the dishes more often, then it's safe to say there are probably more things wrong than just who's doing the dishes.) It is important to feel like you are being paid appropriately, and using math is a great way to see. Keep in mind that in labor-based jobs, labor and attached expenses average to cost the company 55%-67%, that's way most commission based positions are offered at a 60/40 split. JUST THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG IF YOU WANT TO START YOUR OWN BUSINESS.
One of the biggest Pros about working for someone else is a steady paycheck. This Pro should not be taken lightly when talking about setting out on your own. Take time to dive into your financial responsibilities; like me, if you don't have a chunk of money to invest or you don't want to take out a loan, you might need to have a "pay the bills job" for a while until your business is strong enough to support your lifestyle (namely tool buying!).
I used these Pros and Cons because techs are notorious for not knowing how to appropriately value their worth. At the beginning of our building and repairing journey most of us swept up someone else's mess, put away tools, and asked a lot of questions- and we considered ourselves lucky to receive any form of payment... money was always nice, but I always enjoyed getting paid with tools more. We were happy to get paid because the knowledge we gained far out weighed any bit of money we could put in our pockets. What I am saying is, if you, as we all do, have a lot to learn then consider how that might be weighed into your rate- The Beatles played a shit load of free gigs before they were ever called The Beatles... We all have to pay our dues; and having the opportunity to work in a shop under a brilliant mind, or in a shop where you are exposed to new instruments or more knowledge is always worth a little less pay. So, don't mess up those special opportunities! If you're still struggling to make ends meet get a lightweight second job! Something you can have fun doing, something that doesn't follow you home- like teaching an art class, or working for an after school program, or be a prep chef and chop veggies on a Friday night- I have done all of those things just so I could keep repairing guitars, I'm not ashamed.
One of my big Pro and Con that has come up a few times in different shops has been continuing education. I am a big advocate! If you find yourself in a shop that might not pay all that well, but you are learning from a much older, wiser tech/builder, or they pay your way to educational conferences like Symposium, ASIA, or NAMM- that's a great thing! Try to hash things out and see if you can't find a way to stay there, because they are obviously interested in investing in your future- and you won't find that every where!
Some final thoughts; it's your life; you have to choose how to live it. Life gets a bit more complicated, not necessarily harder, when you choose to make a living doing what you love. When you start your own business you do have to push yourself to learn more, to get out of your comfort zone and talk with a shit load of people, to deal with confrontations, to speak simply and kindly about successes. The struggle is always worth it, if that's what you really want... Because it is your life. Me? I'd rather be solving problems with guitars than sitting at a computer typing for an hour. Looks like I need to get back to my bench.
P.S. Feel free to share your comments and concerns about starting a new shop or staying in a shop; it might just help someone!