I grew up talking business with my father. I thought all kids did. My parents owned a small business. As a kid, I went on service calls with Dad, discussed logos, worked at a drafting table with a cool electric eraser, and witnessed the victories and pains of small business. And I am forever grateful.
My dad’s business was an extension of him, and an ever-present “12th man” at our dinner table and on our car trips. We talked about business, daily.
I learned a lot about character, priorities, and kindness from my father. And I also absorbed three valuable business lessons from him:
1. Business is about serving people.
Dad was always helping someone.
Dad always took a customer’s call. He said, “If they took the time to call, it must be important.”
He always wanted to be accessible (pre-mobile phone days, of course) so we had a three-line phone in our home, which my friends thought was way cool. We loved acting like we were executives, pressing the red hold buttons, scribbling on notepads, hollering for someone to bring us coffee.
I spent hours listening to Dad explain to customers how sprinkler systems functioned, ideal watering times, and the eventual payback from an investment in saving water, again and again. Each time his gentle, helpful response sounded as if their question was the first time anyone had ever asked that important question.
Dad served others with integrity. We lived in a small, geographically isolated town. So there was nowhere to hide, if you burnt a bridge with someone, you’d likely need to scorch your toes as you crossed that same bridge in the future. This did not present a challenge for Dad. He was nice to everyone, and served all people with a smile.
He was so nice; in fact, he started a business (that lost money) for his landscape employees to keep them busy during the winter months. He told me, “They’ve got families to feed. We’ll figure it out.”
Dad taught me business is all about serving people.
2. Take some risks.
Dad taught me to take chances. He was born into farming, but not born a farmer.
Much like Matthew McConaughey’s restless character in the blockbuster movie, Insterstellar, Dad respected the value of the farm, but was not a farmer. I thought of my dad when Cooper mused,
“We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”
Dad left the farm to explore. To start something new. He risked security to explore what else was out there. And once he explored and established a successful business, he explored the next possibility.
I remember accompanying Dad to a lawn and garden trade show in the late ‘70’s where he patiently explained solar lighting to stupefied customers. People didn’t get it. Why use that “hippie dippie system” when I can flip a switch?
That’s okay, Dad, we get it now.
3. Remember why you’re doing what you’re doing.
Dad operated his own business so he could provide well for our family, set his own schedule, and spend time with us.
When I was home from school in the summer, he’d come home for lunch almost every day. He would stop what he was doing at work to come home and eat lunch with mom and I (and catch a quick nap on the living room floor). We’d hear about his morning, and if I begged, he’d hop in the boat to take me for a spin around the lake.
He hooked our family on snow skiing (eight hours away in Colorado) because it was an activity all five of us could enjoy together with our wide range of ages, and it was during his business’s slow season. He knew work could demand a lot of his attention during season, but wanted us all to profit from his hard work and availability during the winter.
Family came first for Dad. Maybe that’s why all three of us kids have moved our families to another state to be near he and mom. Had he forgotten why he was doing what he was doing, he would have poured all of his love and energies into his small business. And I doubt it would have spent much time with him in retirement.
I continue to learn a lot from my dad. And in a lot of ways, I am like him. I approach every day with wonder and appreciation. I love peaches, the Hi-Lo’s, and can identify more plant species than a normal human being. I choke up when I talk about family members who have passed on. And I take risks, serve others, and structure my freelance business to benefit my family.