My mother wouldn't self-identify as an entrepreneur, yet almost everything I need to know about entrepreneurship, I learned from her when I was still a child.
In honor of Mother's Day this weekend, I'd like to recognize the entrepreneurial spirit that so many of our mothers, perhaps inadvertently, instilled in their daughters and sons. For me at least, from coordinating logistics to calculating the value of our services to keeping a sense of humor, many traits of my entrepreneurial path can be traced back to my mother.
Here's how she taught me what I know:
Pricing. Or, How to Not Undervalue Your Product or Service
My mom is a baker. She ran a small business out of our home, baking cookies and cakes to a steady stream of regular customers. Her cakes were noteworthy for children's parties in particular, as they were often in the shape of a Sesame Street character or the latest superhero that required painstaking decoration with icing in a multitude of colors.
One day she received a notice from the local government warning her against running a food business out of the home. She identified a loophole, however, that allowed her to operate in the same space: she could continue the business, as long as she was paid for the cakes and cookies on a voluntary basis. She would no longer be setting the price for her goods; her customers would decide what to pay her.
The irony-- and the lesson for entrepreneurs and women entrepreneurs specifically-- is that her customers voluntarily paid her far more than what she initially charged them. She was undervaluing her products, essentially charging for ingredients and the barest minimum for her time and labor.
Take a moment to run through this scenario for yourself. If your customers decided for themselves what to pay you, how would that impact your rate sheet? It could be the difference between, on the one hand, what you need to charge in order to stay in business and, on the other hand, what your product or service is worth to your customer and their business. The former benefits your customer; the latter is more likely to benefit you.
The Logistics and the Nuance of Hard Work
From selling thousands upon thousands of cookies from her kiosk at the state fair to filling hundreds of holiday gift tins with eight different cookie flavors each, all within very limited space constraints and with six kids at home, I think my Mom is a logistical genius. She also, quite simply, settles down into the work and sees it through to completion.
There's no secret sauce to get around hard work and long hours. There are, however, a few nuances that make the hard work flow more smoothly: vigilance, delegation and planning ahead.
Before Amazon or eBay, sourcing hundreds of holiday gift tins meant constant vigilance year-round at local shops and flea markets, and eyes peeled for tins to add to her inventory. It may be easier now to buy in bulk, but the lesson for entrepreneurs nonetheless still holds: with an "end product" or mission firmly articulated, there's no time when we aren't mindful of it. The hunt, as they say, is on. Always.
During the busiest times of the year, my Mom would orchestrate "assembly lines" of helpers: one younger kid to unpeel the paper wrapping from the sticks of butter, for example, another older kid to position the cookies in the tins just so. It was a master class in delegation, to identify discrete tasks appropriate to the skill levels of her "workers" that also saved countless hours of her own time.
Growing up, we had an extra freezer in the house, which is something that seemed like a wild extravagance given our parents' lean operating budget for the household. But my Mom used it like a depository of materials for future plans, like buckets of cookie dough or homemade ravioli for Christmas dinner. Today's entrepreneur might recognize that freezer as an integral component of "project management." For my Mom, back then, it represented the good sense of planning ahead.
The "good sense" underlying each of these takeaways can be updated for today's entrepreneur, but they were logical and sound decisions in the moment: needing to run a small business from home, for example, when you're also your children's primary caregiver, and rethinking the value assigned to women's work. The bones of my mother's motivation as an entrepreneur, however, is much the same as those of us today: to contribute, and to do work we enjoy that is also personally gratifying.