The Knack… and How to Get It
We all have mentors in business, although we're not always aware of the role they're playing. My first and best mentor was an independent businessman, a solo practitioner, in New York City. His business was custom peddling. He'd visit his customers in their homes and sell them clothing, appliances, whatever. He was like a one-man traveling department store, and he handled the full range of business functions by himself -- from purchasing to bookkeeping to managing credit and collecting receivables. I sometimes went with him on his route. I'd ask him a lot of questions, and he'd explain the logic of what he was doing. That's how I learned some of the most important business concepts I use to this day.
At the time, however, I didn't appreciate the education I was getting. I was only eight years old. The custom peddler was my father.
It's ironic, I suppose, that growing up I never wanted to go into business. I had no desire to follow in my father's footsteps. After college, I went to law school, figuring I'd make my fortune in law. But life is funny, and I eventually wound up in business anyway. Only then did I begin to realize how much my father had taught me.
He was the one, for example, who first explained to me the importance of maintaining high gross margins. He called them something else -- big markups -- but the thought process was the same. "Always make a good sale with a big markup," he'd say. "Make sure your customer is someone you can collect from." "Don't take advantage of people." "Be fair." Those are fabulous business lessons embedded in my mind, and they came straight from my father.
Then there were his expressions. "Don't worry twice," he'd tell me when I'd get anxious about an upcoming event -- a final exam, for instance. He'd ask, "Have you done your homework? Are you prepared?" I usually was. "So don't worry twice." In other words, don't waste time and energy on problems that may never arise.
Or when I complained about not knowing what to do with my life, he'd say, "There's a million dollars under your shoe; you just have to find it." It wasn't until I became an entrepreneur that I understood what he meant.
Or when I talked about things I'd like to have, he'd say, "You don't ask, you don't get," whereupon I'd request a bigger allowance. He'd smile and say, "Nice try, but just because you ask doesn't mean you're going to get it." Much later I came to understand that he'd been giving me my first lesson in selling.
Lessons like these sunk in when I wasn't looking. They became habits of mind that led me to do certain things reflexively, without even noticing what I was doing. One of my best habits, for example, grew out of my father's practice of breaking down problems and challenges into their basic components. He believed that most issues in business -- and in life -- are fundamentally simple, even though they may appear complicated at first. He taught me that, to deal with them, you have to examine the underlying elements and figure out what's really going on. Never assume, moreover, that the real issues are those you see on the surface. That way of thinking has been one of my most powerful business tools over the years.
Indeed, I believe it's such mental habits that allow people to become successful entrepreneurs. I myself have been an entrepreneur for three decades. I've built more than eight companies, including a messenger business that made the Inc. 500 list of fastest- growing private companies for three straight years and a records storage company that I sold for $110 million in a leveraged buyout. Along the way, I've had the privilege of meeting many other successful men and women company builders, and I've noticed that most of us share these mental habits. They are the secrets of our success. (Well, one of the them. It certainly helps to have a life partner like my wife of thirty-nine years, Elaine, without whom I would not have achieved anywhere near the amount of success that I've enjoyed.)
Now, I realize that not everyone wants to hear this. A lot of people starting out in business would prefer to have a step- by- step formula or a specific set of rules they could use to achieve their goals. The problem is, there aren't any. Rather, there's a way of thinking that allows someone to deal with many different situations and take advantage of many different opportunities as they arise. To be sure, having that mentality doesn't guarantee that you'll succeed at everything you do, but it does improve your chances significantly. You win more than you lose, and the longer you stay in the game, the more often you come out on top.
I believe most people can develop the habits of mind I'm talking about and use them to acquire the wherewithal to live whatever kind of life they want. Not that every person will be successful to the same degree or in the same way. In business, as elsewhere, some individuals have God-given gifts that allow them to play the game better than others. We can't all be Tiger Woods, or Picasso, or Shakespeare, but anybody can learn how to play golf, or paint, or write a sonnet, and we can all learn how to be financially self-sufficient as well.
That's an opinion, I might add, that has been repeatedly tested over the past seventeen years -- ever since I began mentoring Bobby and Helene Stone, an experience I recount in chapter 1 of this book. My work with them led to an article in Inc. by Bo Burlingham, who later became my coauthor when we launched our column, "Street Smarts," in December 1995. Through the column, I came into contact with literally thousands of people who wanted to start a business, or who were in the process of starting a business, or who already had a business and were wrestling with one problem or another. They wrote me from all over the United States, Canada, and Mexico, as well as from countries as far away as Korea, Lithuania, Brazil, Singapore, and South Africa. They were software developers, insurance brokers, headhunters, artists, swimming pool installers, concrete road pavers, furniture builders, Web site designers, machine-tool salesmen, butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers. (All right, maybe not butchers, but the others for sure.) They had tile-making businesses, diagnostic imaging facilities, cosmetics companies, bellows- making factories, recruitment services, violin shops, investment firms, consulting practices, dot-coms, movie chains, and just about every other type of business under the sun.
I read all their e- mails and responded to as many as I could. Every year, I also chose eight to ten of the writers to mentor on an ongoing basis. Some of them you will meet in the following pages. Their goals ran the gamut from building a giant business to starting a day care center to simply achieving financial independence and having more time with the family. Everybody, after all, has a different definition of success. What we have in common is the desire to have happier, richer, fuller lives for ourselves, and create a better world for our children and grandchildren. My goal was to help the entrepreneurs develop the mental habits that would allow them to do that. Judging by what some of them have accomplished, I have to believe that my efforts were not entirely in vain -- which is not to take anything away from the people themselves. Building their businesses has been their doing, not mine.
I should note, moreover, that you don't have to have a mentor like me, or a father like mine, to acquire the mental habits needed to "handle whatever comes up." Many of my own habits I've developed the old- fashioned way -- by making mistakes, falling on my face, picking myself up, and figuring out how not to do it again. But you know what they say: A smart person learns from his or her mistakes. A wise person learns from other people's mistakes. I guess that makes me smart. I hope that, through this book, I can help you to be wise.
Reprinted from The Knack: How Street-Smart Entrepreneurs Learn to Handle Whatever Comes Up (http://www.TheKnack.info) by Norm Brodsky and Bo Burlingham by arrangement with Portfolio, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright 2008
NORM BRODSKY | Columnist
Street Smarts columnist and senior contributing editor Norm Brodsky is a veteran entrepreneur who has founded and expanded six businesses.
BO BURLINGHAM | Staff Writer
Burlingham joined Inc. in 1983. An editor at large, he is the author of Small Giants. Burlingham is also the co-author with Norm Brodsky of The Knack; and the co-author with Jack Stack of The Great Game of Business.