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OWNER'S MANUAL

This Is What Small Business Success Looks Like

He never achieved fame. He never achieved fortune. But you might say this entrepreneur did something infinitely more important.

The picture of success? Yes--for one man. The old building that used to house Paul Emerson Ipock's record store in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

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I feel terrible every time I drive by the old brick building.

Years ago it was the home of a record store. I was new to the area and into music the way a guy of my generation with no social life was into music, so I checked it out.

Over time I got to know the owner. Unlike many people with a deep knowledge of a specific subject (see: snobs, Wine) Paul was never judgmental or snooty. He saw musical tastes for what they are: individual, subjective, never wrong. Just different.

He quickly picked up on mine. At first it seemed odd that whenever I walked in his store he was playing a newly-released album I had eagerly awaited. One week it was The Clash’s "London Calling," another Pink Floyd’s "The Wall," another U2’s "Boy."

Later I realized that when he saw me on the sidewalk he quickly put new albums he knew I would love on the turntable. It wasn’t a sales tactic; he just enjoyed seeing the, “Hey, cool, is that the new Van Halen album?” expression on my face when I walked in.

Paul was the first person I knew who built a lifestyle business. He loved music and wanted to be around other people who loved music.

In time he asked me to watch his store some Saturdays—he paid me not in cash but in records—so he could spend whole weekends with his young family. I did not then but know now the trust implied: His store was his baby and he felt I would take good care of it.

It was a fun job but it was also my first peek behind the curtain of business ownership. I got my first glimpses of the practical aspects of entrepreneurship, and the personal.

I met Paul while I was in college. He was my first “adult” friend, someone I became friends with because we shared common interests and not because we worked together or went to the same school.

He was the first person to invite me to his home for a “grown-up” dinner. I remember sitting at the table with his wife and beautiful young daughter and feeling surprisingly—although undeservedly—mature. He was the first person I asked over for pizza when I bought a house.

Today, little events we take for granted; when we're growing up, milestone moments.

Later he closed the store. As the years passed I saw him less and less. We still ran into each other occasionally, but we traveled in different circles.

At least that's what I told myself.

Then I heard he was seriously ill. I thought about calling, but the distance I had allowed to grow between us made me hesitant and I never did.

Then I found out, months after the fact, he had passed away.

Paul was a good guy in the best sense of the expression. He started a record store because he loved music. He learned to play harmonica so he could play with friends who were musicians.

And he befriended a college kid with more attitude than sense, trusted him with his business, invited him into his home, and showed him by example what it means to be a husband, a father, a businessman, and a man.

He never asked for anything in return.

Paul Emerson Ipock died on October 21, 1993. I learned the date of his passing, many years too late, on a cold and quiet winter morning in the small country cemetery where he was laid to rest. I stood for a long time in front of his black, frost-speckled gravestone.

Eventually I stood to go. Then I paused. I thought I should say a few words, but words were hard to find.

Finally I just said, “Paul, you were a really good guy. I should have been there. I’m sorry I wasn’t. You deserved better.”

As I spoke, my breath created a mist that disappeared into the cold winter air.

Paul was not the kind of entrepreneur who drew attention. He never sought fame. He never achieved fortune. But he, and his small business, made a profound impact on me, and, I feel sure, on others.

In that way, possibly the most important way, he was a tremendous success.

While that old brick building stands as a symbol of friendship given and not returned, it also stands as a symbol of the true meaning of entrepreneurship: Striving to make a difference, even if only one person at a time.

Last updated: Mar 15, 2012

JEFF HADEN learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.
@jeff_haden




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