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--from purchasing to bookkeeping to managing credit and collecting accounts receivable--by himself.
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, including many that I've presented in these columns.
At the time, however, I didn't appreciate the education I was getting. I was only 8 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.
He also instilled in me the habit of breaking things down to basics. "Most businesses are simple," he'd say, and he was right. Always make a good sale. Get the highest gross profit possible. 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.
But it's another expression of his that became my all-time favorite and had the greatest impact on my overall approach to business: "You don't ask, you don't get."
Let me tell you a story. A few years ago my wife, Elaine, and I attended a big dinner at which Vice President Al Gore was the guest of honor. There must have been a couple thousand people in the banquet hall, most of whom had come in hopes of meeting Gore. We had, too, but we were sitting at a table way off to one side, separated from the vice-president by several hundred other guests and a contingent of security guards and Secret Service agents. After we finished the main course, I stood up from the table. "Where are you going?" Elaine asked.
"I'm going to speak to the vice president," I said.
Now understand, there was no objective reason to believe I'd be able to get anywhere near the man. I had no better claim to his time than the 1,999 other people there, and the Secret Service wasn't letting anybody through.
But I didn't think about the odds of succeeding. If I had, I probably wouldn't have tried. I was just going by my father's precept: You don't ask, you don't get.
I walked up to the vice-president's table. A security guard stopped me. "You can't go there," he said.
"Al's a friend," I said. "I just want to say hello." At that moment, the vice-president looked over at me. I waved, and he waved back. "See, he's waving at me," I said. The guard turned around, saw Gore waving, and let me in.
I sat down next to the vice-president and chatted with him, at which point Elaine and my friend Erwin walked up to the guard. I said, "Mr. Vice-President, that's my wife and a close friend of ours. Would you mind letting them in, too?"
He called out to the security guard, "Those two people are OK." So we all talked to the vice-president for a few minutes, then shook his hand and left. Meanwhile there were dozens of other couples lining up to see him, but the guard wouldn't allow any of them through.
I do that sort of thing all the time. A lot of people think it takes nerve, but nerve doesn't enter the picture. You need nerve only when you're afraid of being rejected. I have no fears and no expectations in those situations. My attitude is, I'll give it a shot and see what happens. If I get what I want, great. If not, well, I can laugh and smile and walk away.
The secret is an attitude, a philosophy that's summed up in my father's expression "You don't ask, you don't get." It took me a long time to understand exactly what the phrase meant. As a kid, I'd say, "OK, how about doubling my allowance?"
"Nice try," my father would reply. "You're not getting it."
Eventually, I figured out that it was all about losing your fear of asking. You realize that you'll never get anything unless you ask for it, and so you might as well try. In the process, you accept the fact that you're going to get turned down fairly often. The surprise is that you get turned down a lot less frequently than you'd ever imagine.
So I developed certain habits that proved extremely valuable when I finally went into business. Among other things, my father's principle helped me become a pretty good salesperson. Why? Because I wasn't afraid of getting no for an answer. You always hear that salespeople have to overcome their fear of rejection, but the concept of rejection didn't enter my mind. Even in doing cold calling, I never felt as though I'd been rejected when I failed to make a sale. I'd just think, "That didn't work. I'll have to try something else." A no was nothing more than an opportunity that didn't happen. I didn't take it personally and I didn't get upset.
That's a tremendous advantage in business. I learned that with such a mind-set, you can get more sales and negotiate better deals because you don't stop asking. You don't restrict yourself. Yes, you're polite. You listen carefully. You try not to offend people by being overly aggressive. On the other hand, you don't back off. You're willing to keep going until the other party balks--which is the only way to be sure you've gone far enough.
What's more, you're not shy about enlisting other people to help you build your business. You have no qualms about going to friends, associates, suppliers, whomever, and asking for referrals and leads. Of course, you then have a responsibility to do the same for them, so you have to be a little careful. You don't want to recommend people to a customer unless you have confidence that they'll do a good job. But I have great confidence in a lot of my colleagues, and they've always delivered for me. My three biggest customers have come from a person I exchanged leads with.
It's really my father I have to thank, however. He was the one who inculcated in me the habits and lessons that have allowed me to thrive in business. My only regret is that he didn't live long enough to see how well I've learned. I was in law school when he died. He'd worked very hard to get me there. "Education is the golden key," he used to say. Little did I know that my best education had come from him, a custom peddler.
I'll miss him this Father's Day. I wish he were alive. I'd like to show him around my company. Then maybe--if we had the time--I'd take him to Washington, D.C., and introduce him to my friend Al Gore.
Norm Brodsky is a veteran entrepreneur whose six businesses include an Inc. 100 company and an Inc. 500 company. This column was coauthored by Bo Burlingham.