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3 Things I Learned from an Entrepreneurial Father

As I have grown and developed as an entrepreneur, I continually look back on my dad’s entrepreneurial journey. I guess as he was living it, he didn’t realize he was modeling behavior for me that would one day form how I ran my business. Probably a good thing…running a business is hard enough without the added pressure of young eyes watching.

I recounted some of his history to a colleague yesterday, and I was reminded of 3 valuable lessons I learned from my dad:

  • Keep trying until you get it right – My dad had several businesses during his working life. He was a valuable partner in a hardware store at a young age and discovered quickly that partnerships are hard and unpredictable. He was forced out, unceremoniously, and it really hurt him. He learned a lot from that experience and carried that into his next ventures. He and my mom opened up a hardware store in two different locations in my hometown, and both of them eventually closed. He painted houses with my grandfather and great-uncle for several years, getting up early and coming home late to clean out paintbrushes and have dinner before falling asleep in his favorite chair. Finally, he found the one that stuck…a general store that he ran for over 20 years, where I was able to work with him and see how hard it was to run your own business. He was in his early-mid 40’s when he started that business. How many times are we frustrated in our mid-30’s that we can’t find what works for us?
  • When you’re forced to change, don’t let fear paralyze you – My dad didn’t really choose the general store. It chose him. Before he opened the store, he was painting houses. He was (and still is) quite good at it, and his services were in demand. He was on a ladder one afternoon and became too dizzy to climb down. His business partner had to help him down off the ladder, and the next week he was diagnosed with an inner ear disease. The ladders were a no-go, which meant for him that painting was a no-go. A friend of his at church casually told him soon after that he was looking to sell his general store, and my dad bought it from him for $48,000 that he borrowed from my uncle (who also owned a store, coincidentally). How about that for opportunities presenting themselves to you? He didn’t let the fear of changing careers paralyze him. In the middle of all this, my sister was about to get married, and I was 11 years old. He had to produce income, so he stepped up to the entrepreneurial ledge and jumped (again). How many entrepreneurs were thrown into the situation of needing to earn income for their families, and made it work out of necessity?
  • Keep improving, but always cap the downside – My dad was never comfortable with things for very long. He was patient in all the right places, but impatient with mediocrity.

He was always looking for new merchandise for the store. He was always inventing new sandwiches to make for his customers. He continually improved the barbecue pits where he cooked some of the best barbecue I have ever had. But, he never bought 100 boxes of something that he wasn’t sure would sell in the store. He never made a substantial investment in anything that had the possibility of not producing profit for the business. He could test things and then buy more if the customers liked them. Donating ten boxes of something that didn’t sell, or simply giving it away to long-time customers, was far easier than dealing with 50 boxes. How many times do we consciously and carefully analyze the downside of something before jumping in?

I could write for hours about all the things my dad taught me about entrepreneurship. I could recount the story of him giving free tanks of gasoline to this family who had a terminally ill child and had to travel 200 miles every three days for treatments. I could tell you the MANY stories of free bags of groceries given to families around the holidays, and free 5-gallon drums of kerosene to families who had no heat. If you asked him today if he considers himself an entrepreneur, he would probably say no. I think it’s partly because my dad is a very humble man and hates labels, but I also think that entrepreneurship came so easily to him that it felt like breathing. He didn’t have to do anything special to turn on that part of his brain. I can envision him right now, shrugging his shoulders and saying “I did what I had to do.” I meet many entrepreneurs in my firm who are exactly the same way. I think that’s why I consider it such an honor to work with them. They remind me of my dad in those moments, and my only response is to help them change the little part of the world they occupy, one customer at a time…like he would do in my position.

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