I started my first business at age 11, selling tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots and squash that I grew myself. It was all planted from seed on a tiny plot of land behind our two-bedroom house in Okemos, Michigan.
My maiden venture yielded a number of useful lessons that have stayed with me throughout my 40-year career in business. If you’re the parent of a would-be entrepreneur (or an enterprising young LinkedIn reader), perhaps you can find something in here that’ll help early ideas take root.
My customers – or “relevant market,” as I’ve since learned to call them — lived in a small dirt-road subdivision not far from our house. By summer’s end, we had a dozen regular buyers to whom we brought produce to cook up for family dinner.
Our “delivery fleet” was a red Radio Flyer wagon, which we piled high with vegetables before we made the neighborhood rounds every other day.
My “angel investor” was my dad — not so much a venture financier as a dad supporting a son. He advanced me the capital for seeds and fertilizer, allowed me access to his water supply, and provided a “no-cost equipment lease” – that is, he let me borrow – a single hoe. My “supply chain” was the town’s hardware store, and my sole employee was my ornery 6-year-old brother, who regularly threatened to quit.
By the end of the summer, we took a full accounting. Our income statement after all expenses showed the kingly sum of $14. (Not too different a return on work from the airline industry!)
This early taste of success was exciting, and I wanted more. Fifty years later, I’ve started a half-dozen companies, provided growth capital to more than 100 others, served on many boards, and taught thousands of MBA’s how to manage a young enterprise. But most of what I know about launching, nurturing, and running a business I learned during that humid Michigan summer in 1958.
So, here are some principles of good business that became clear to me right away, and have only grown more important since:
- Don’t expect immediate (seed stage) results. Crops take time to germinate.
- Plant extra seeds, thin the crop, and expect the strongest plants to reach maturity.
- Don’t dig up carrots to see if they’re still growing. Have faith in the cycle.
- Pray for rain and sun, but make your own luck by weeding and watering.
- Harvested vegetables don’t keep long. If you wait too long to discount the price on your inventory you’ll end up “eating” it.
- A garden needs constant nurturing — don’t go on vacation when it’s time to harvest.
- Sales is everything. So, pay your salesmen well — or at least make sure they’re cute little fellows pulling red wagons.
- When you’re out of cash, you’re out of business; so be frugal like a farmer.
- Keep your customers happy by delivering fresh product before it’s needed, not after. Timing the market is all-important.
- Make sure your investors get a return – and don’t forget to thank them. Without backers, there’s no lettuce for anyone.