All the Business Advice You Need -- From My Old Man

Last Updated Aug 25, 2010 7:47 PM EDT


I'm a young (I like to think) 44 years old, and I own Skooba Design, a young, hip, creative, and thoroughly modern company. Yet some of Skooba's core business values might be considered by some to be "old school." If that makes me or my company seem in any way less with-it or progressive, so be it -- I wouldn't trade or compromise these principles for anything. And these concepts that guide our business are largely based on, well, stuff my dad told me.

My family's first business (which we sold in 1998) was a 50-year-old manufacturer and distributor of photographic equipment. By any measure it was a successful company -- significant, profitable growth every year, no debt, great products, happy and dedicated employees, and a wonderful reputation in the industry. My father guided the business with many dyed-in-the-wool (read: stubborn-as-hell) philosophies, which usually manifested themselves as pithy sayings. Some were handed down from his own mentors, some borrowed from others, some were well-known expressions, some his own creations. Many of them would probably get him in trouble with the Political Correctness Police these days.

We came to refer to these nuggets as "Steve-isms," and if I can eventually remember and record them all, I'll have the makings of a good book. In the meantime, I thought I'd share a few of his favorites. If you've heard some before, I hope you'll enjoy them again. If you're hearing them for the first time, even if you find them oh-so-cute, I hope you find some meaning and value behind them, as I have:

"Volume is vanity, profit is sanity."
This could be the only advice any business needs. While there are, of course, economies of scale and other arguments for "deficit spending" to grow volume, at the end of the day -- especially in small business -- the real rules never change: It's not how much you sell, it's how much you keep. Now, I realize it is a simple and convenient statement. But the core meaning is solid and irrefutable, yet ignored or dismissed by many in the too-big-to-fail camp. You can be as big as you want, but it's real profit--and nothing but real profit--that sustains a business, ensures a livelihood and lifestyle for its employees and other stakeholders, creates products that make life better, and makes most things possible. Bigger is not always better (hey, small business represents more than half of our economy).

"What is bound to fall should be pushed."
Don't hold on to something you shouldn't, whether it is a product, project, business model, price, employee, or idea. Sure, sometimes bad things will get better -- this is not about throwing in the towel the second things get tough. But too many of us let bad things go too far, hoping against hope that they will somehow get better. This Steve-ism is about making difficult decisions quickly. If you know something is inevitable, make it happen now: Kill a project that's fruitlessly sapping your resources, close out bad inventory, fire bad employees. Don't wait or hope or avoid. Push.

"It's like giving a dead man an enema... it can't hurt."
OK, not exactly Shakespeare, but an all-time crowd fave. Steve said this whenever an "iffy" suggestion came up (even if it was his own). It basically covers that range of ideas that are neither fantastic nor terrible. They may or may not work, and they won't do much damage if they don't. It was the Old Man's way of saying "sure, give it a try, why not." Maybe not the most rah-rah, new millennium way of encouraging exploration, but we all knew what he meant. I still say it, though with much more obvious and intentional humor (and more often than not, about my own ideas), when my gang sits around and brainstorms.

"Figures can lie and liars can figure."
You can figure that one out.

"Everyone makes tea with boiling water."
Pretty straightforward. The rules -- in the great, cosmic scheme of things -- don't change, and really never have. Sure, times change, technologies change, possibilities change. But the basic DNA of business truly doesn't. My father often used this expression to make a point about humility. He believed, as do I, that hubris is one of the most dangerous things in business. The people who think the rules somehow don't apply to them are often the ones who go down in flames. One need only read any business newspaper or magazine from the past two years to see the concept in action.

And there are many more, but I'll have to save those for a follow-up piece some day.

My father will be the first to admit that these are the bons mots of a very traditional and fairly risk-averse businessman from a different generation. He'd concede that more adventurous, bet-the-farm entrepreneurs and companies have different points of view, and many might chuckle at the sheer quaintness of it all. They might think of these as the words of a dinosaur (never mind that dinosaurs ran the joint for about 175,000,000 years more than we have so far).

But at the heart of every Steve-ism is the experience and hard-earned wisdom of someone who built something from nothing and had nothing to prove. And the results of our half-century-old business, guided by these principles, spoke for themselves.

Do you, your business, or mentors have "Steve-isms" of their own, whether serious, humorous, or a little bit of both? Would love to hear from anyone who has a gem or two to contribute.

(Flickr image by Basswulf)
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    Michael is an entrepreneur who has launched businesses including Skooba Design and Hotdog Yoga Gear travel bag brands, as well as Journeyware Travel Outfitters. Michael sold his company in 2014 and is now focused on writing, speaking and consulting. Learn more about his ventures at www.businesswithclass.com.

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