My dad is one of the best salesmen I’ve ever known. If he had stuck to just selling for other people, he’d probably be a lot richer. But he has always had the bug to start his own business and be his own boss. And he always invovled the whole family in the endeavor. Although none of these businesses made us rich (not even close) I probably learned as much about business working for my dad growing up as I did getting my MBA.
The stream of products and businesses blurs after a while. The ones that come to mind include: Hitch-O-Matic (a device for helping you back up to a trailer hitch); a hoist for lifting engines out of cars; a pneumatic metal shear; a nailing machine for picture frames (that one shared a bedroom with my brother and me for a while); Las Vegas Dice Games (it improved my craps skills at 13 years old); framed copies of the declaration of independence; telephones in a jewelry box (“put your rings in a box”); O-Ring Extraction Kits (for removing seals from airplane transmissions); and more. My parents have also owned several coffee shops, a candle shop, and a Christian hotdog stand called Hallelujah Hotdogs. No lack of imagination there.
I spent my formative years eating off of roach coaches and working in a series of thousand square foot spaces in industrial parks (gotta keep the cost of labor down). Instead of hanging out in the mall with other teenagers, my brother Tom and I were out picking up parts, negotiating with creditors, and hanging out with the usual assortment of folks who work for minimum wage.
Unfortunately none of those businesses paid off and my dad always returned to selling electronic parts which paid better and was less stressful. But they did put dinner on the table and gave me a chance to learn some valuable lessons.
Among the lessons that I learned from my dad was the importance of finding a need and filling it. He’s always been a master at getting people to tell him what they really want to buy and then figuring out how to get it to them. If you’re working for a big company you can go through the motions and stick to the script that your boss hands you. When you are counting on eating what you kill, that’s a critical skill.
I also learned resilience. That came in handy for me when I was shepherding a business and team through the dot bomb of 2001 and 2002. I see that same resilience in many small business owners. In boxing they call it a “fighters heart”–it’s the guts to get up off the mat after you get hit hard. That’s essential for small business. Even though the articles would have you believe that it’s all sunshine and roses, there are inevitably tough days and disappointments. When it’s your business, you just have to suck it up sometimes and work through the difficulty.
And, as much as anything, from my dad I learned that business is about relationships. There’s an old trusim in sales: first you sell yourself; then you sell your company; finally you sell your product. And in the thirty years that I have been working in the corporate world I have seen the truth of that over and over. It’s not how smart you are or how good the product is and it’s certainly not how low you’ll go on price. People buy from people that they know, like and trust. Great salesmen have great relationships with their customers.
But from the tough times, I also learned the importance of being well capitalized, managing the cash flow, watching production schedues and all of the nitty gritty factors that distinguish great businesses from great ideas.