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Four Small Business Lessons I Learned From My Dad

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It must be Father’s Day: ads for power tools rule the airways, and my mailbox is stuffed with flyers for ties, watches, and gadgets.

In addition to the gift you select, you probably plan on thanking him for being such a great Dad. But do you also plan to thank him for teaching you valuable lessons in running a small business?

I’m not talking about the obvious lessons, like show up on time, work hard, and play fair. I’m talking about worms, duct tape, and buying your first car. These are the hidden lessons and skills that fuel your business success today.

The top 4 unexpected small business lessons you learned from your Dad.

Dad’s Small Business Lesson #1 – The Price of Admission is Worms

I grew up in a fairly rural part of northern Michigan. My family loves the outdoors, especially my Dad. In the summer his favorite weekend activity is trout fishing. As a kid I looked forward to the times we went fishing together. Fresh trout is yummy, and I reveled in trekking through the woods in search of a good place to put our bait in the water.

There was only one rule, and it was applied without fail. To go fishing you had to help dig up the worms, and you had to put your own worms on the hook. I’m not going to claim the worm part was fun. I didn’t run out to the garden in my spare time just to see how many earthworms I could find. I followed the rule because that was the price of admission to a fun day with my Dad.

Looking back I realize that I was learning an incredibly important business truth. If you’re not willing to pay up, you don’t get the reward. As an entrepreneur, especially in the start-up phase, you must be willing to roll up your sleeves and do the necessary grunt work to achieve success. Seems simple, yet how many times do you see people taking short cuts only to fail?

Dad’s Small Business Lesson #2 – How to be a Coach

My Dad was a jock. He loves basketball, and was a pitcher for the Coast Guard baseball team. This was both a blessing and a curse for me. I never enjoyed basketball, and he never seemed to give up hope that might change. I did play softball, and appreciated my Dad’s help with batting practice and learning the right way to catch a fly ball.

Softball will never be more than a team sport I play for fun. On the other hand the coaching from my Dad gets put into practice on a regular basis. How is that possible? No one would (or should!) pay me to coach them in softball. However I do get paid to coach small businesses about finance.

While I was being coached on how to hit better, I was also learning how to coach. To be an effective coach you must break things down into manageable pieces, be patient, and hold the trainee accountable. Whether it’s in sports or business, the principles are the same. Master this trifecta, and others will pay for your help.

Dad’s Small Business Lesson #3 – The Rules of War Negotiation

I had little experience with negotiation growing up other than trying, unsuccessfully, to get a later curfew. That changed the day my Dad took me to a dealership to help me buy my first new car. I didn’t need help paying for it, I needed help buying it. Badly.

I was amazed as I watched my Dad state the actual dealership cost (back then I’m not sure how he got the number) and the fact that he could go a few hours away for a much better deal. His calm, matter of fact approach gave away nothing. He made it clear he was not emotionally invested, and would walk away if the deal was not to his liking.

My Dad had just given me a crash course in negotiation. Before starting, a successful negotiator gets as much information as possible, including what alternatives exist to the current person / company with whom they are negotiating. Stay calm, and be prepared to walk away.

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Dad’s Small Business Lesson #4 – The Right Tool for the Right Job

In the movie Gran Torino there’s a scene where Walt, played by Clint Eastwood, takes the neighborhood kid Thao into his garage workroom. It’s filled with tools of every shape and size, all carefully organized. Thao asks if Walt really knows how to use them all. Walt responds you need to have the right tool for the right job. Then Thao despairs of ever being able to follow in Walt’s footsteps since he doesn’t have any of these tools.

Walt then reassures Thao with the following, “Take these three items: some WD-40, a vise grip, and a roll of duct tape. Any man worth his salt can fix almost any problem with this stuff alone.”

Swap out hot glue for duct tape and it could have been my Dad uttering that phrase. Yes his workroom rivals the one in Gran Torino. Yes he knows how to use everything. And yes, he also showed me how to make do with a few simple things, most often hot glue.

As entrepreneurs, we are constantly bombarded with the business equivalent of Walt’s garage, but our budgets put us closer to Thao’s situation. My Dad taught me both the value of the right tool for the right job, as well as can-do attitude to find a solution when only a few resources are available. What better training could a small business owner ask for?

What about you?

What unexpected business lessons did you learn from your father? Let us know below. Shout-outs to your Dad are encouraged – maybe he’ll use his latest gadget to read it!


What Next:

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy Nicole’s recent post on the Top Five Finance Lessons from Mom.

  • http://www.pbsmartessentials.com/ Justin Amendola

    Nice article, Nicole. I’ll add to your first point: grunt work only matters if it’s focused in the right direction. I know you’re not advocating pointless work, but I’ll add that strategic planning is a critical part of “paying the price of admission” if you’re a small business.

    Strategy is defined as the art/science of allocating limited resources (financial or human) with the aim of creating the biggest possible advantage vs. competitors from those limited resources.

    Grunt work can often significantly eat into those limited resources, so it’s very important to understand what tasks will get a small business the farthest toward sustainable competitive advantages. Strategic planning exercises like those covered in other parts of the pbSmart Essentials site will go a long way to focusing grunt work in the right places.

    • http://www.thenumberswhisperer.com/ Nicole Fende

       Justin that is a great point, and yes it bears spelling out.  Activity without forward motion is wasted.  Having a clear mission to be your guiding force is critical. 

  • http://www.thewordchef.com/ Tea Silvestre, aka Word Chef

    How fun! Not only do I know you better now, but I also remembered several lessons MY dad taught me that I’ve put to good use in my business. One of them happened when I was about 9 or 10. He gave me a copy of “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” And I devoured it that same day. Weird, I know…but he was like that. He always had high expectations for me, no matter my age — and that helped me work hard to live up to them. Happy Father’s Day, Dad! You’ve influenced me FAR more than you know!

    • http://www.thenumberswhisperer.com/ Nicole Fende

       Wow, that’s quite the gift for a 9 or 10 year old.  I didn’t even hear of that book until I was almost 30.  He sounds like a great guy.

  • http://twitter.com/CarolLynnRivera Carol Lynn Rivera

    I love this, Nicole. Not only is it a nice glimpse into your relationship with your dad but it has some really great truths to share. I have to admit that my dad didn’t make me dig any worms. He spoiled me to death. But when it came to work – school, that is – he insisted on doing the time and doing my best. No excuses! Thanks for sharing this and I’m so glad you have such great memories of growing up with your dad.

    • http://www.thenumberswhisperer.com/ Nicole Fende

       Thanks Carol.  I don’t think many people had my worm experience.  The only reason my daughter likes worms and frogs is me (my husband generally takes at least two steps back).  With school your Dad inspired you to do your best.

  • http://twitter.com/goalstribe Goalstribe

    Very nice article and very timely since yesterday was Father’s day. I specially like #1. Experience those slimy, squirmy worms first before you’ll enjoy the rewards. 

    • http://www.thenumberswhisperer.com/ Nicole Fende

       Thanks.  Believe it or not I started to think the worms were kinda cute, but not cute enough to save them from the fish.

  • http://www.facebook.com/CraftsCrazy Beth Parker

    I love how you took these four scenarios with your dad and turned them into business lessons. You are a very insightful writer.

    • http://www.thenumberswhisperer.com/ Nicole Fende

      Thanks for the feedback Beth.  Any lessons you’d like to share from your Dad?

  • http://www.facebook.com/ridler3 Stephen Ridler

    often my Dad said to me ‘Little fish are sweet’, what he actually meant by this was often low value business deals are normally easier to complete with most importantly the customer parting with their money when the work or service required is complete.
    Often many organisations forget that getting the order for whatever product or service is only the start, getting paid at the end or within 30 days etc is the most important part.

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