What I learned from small business owners
If I really think about it, I’ve been around small business my whole life. The multiple circumstances under which they have affected me indicate that I’m not unique.
I grew up in a mostly suburban lifestyle, so I have lots of experience with larger businesses too. Big-box retailers. National grocery chains. The Golden Arches. Still, I found favorite, smaller spots to patronize, fleeting though they may have been.
There was the coffee place halfway between my house and the high school that was regarded by a few friends and me as “our secret”. Before Amazon and iTunes, there was the used book store ensconced in a hideaway of a strip mall across from the grocery store. There was my favorite Italian restaurant, which didn’t want you to know that the cook was the owner’s Chinese wife — the food was amazing, by the way.
Even more than that, my father’s sales route took him across Arizona to customers who were, more often than not, family-run operations. My dad was exactly what these folks needed. He was their “friend in the business,” to borrow from Tom Shane. Making friends with people and executing on mutually beneficial transactions over twenty or thirty years is precisely the kind of career I envisioned for myself in my heady, adolescent days. Dad worked lots of hours, but he was always there when I needed him. And, difficult though the work could be, he always seemed happy. Hard to beat that.
A decade later, as I settled into my own professional routine, slinging checking accounts and car loans for the good people of Flagstaff, Arizona, it became clear to me that an understanding of small businesses was the thing that would really make or break my life. To wit, all of the bankers in town that I truly looked up to were the ones serving and being lauded by our city’s top business owners.
Over time, I would be entrusted with some of their bank business. There was the odd home equity loan for the restaurateur (did I mention that this was 2005–2007?), a credit card for the owner of the surplus outfitter, a secondary checking account for the wine bar. Every person I met was completely different, of course, but the thing they all had in common was this glow.
Yes, a glow. No matter how busy, stressed, or unsure of their own future, each business owner radiated a type of peace that I have come to associate with being one’s own boss. They were all working on something uniquely theirs, and on their terms. Their infinite success or utter failure was up to them. There was no one to blame, because they had each chosen their path.
At the time I possessed an entrepreneurial streak that was matched only by my yellow vein of cowardice. I admired and envied the glow, but I was making a secure living, and was proud of it. Especially given how rare that would become in the following years, I was thankful then and I’m thankful now. So, instead of striking out on my own, I continued to sit at the feet of my five-minute mentors (and still do), many of whom will never know how impactful they were.
From these myriad business owners, I learned:
- Get up early, but also…
- Get plenty of sleep.
- Study the market and the competition.
- Be frugal with buying decisions, but don’t be afraid to purchase an asset with good returns.
- Speaking of money, be generous and charitable.
- Serve the masses.
- Become known in the community for doing good.
- Stand out — be a leader.
- Good marketing beats a great product.
- Buy low, sell high.
- Maintain high ethical conduct.
- Refer new business to good companies.
- Don’t forget to spend time with family and friends.
- Never. Give. Up.
There are likely a thousand more. My biggest takeaway though, and the thing that I’ll carry with me forever, is that businesses all started as people who had something of value to offer, and decided to do it their way. And when you do something your way, you tend to give it your all. I’m inclined then to believe that the more people who are working for themselves, the stronger our communities will be, at every level.
Originally published at www.kylejkepner.com on December 7, 2016.