I Started My Business In My Mom's Basement at the Age of 17. Here are 5 Rules I Wish I Had Known, But Had to Learn the Hard Way
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Just before my 18th birthday, I decided to start a business selling mail-order rock-climbing gear. I can still clearly remember the first day I drove to my Post Office Box (yes, this was before the internet) and found orders with checks attached (yes, people used to mail checks). Wait, I thought, I just got out of bed, and there is money waiting for me? I was hooked.
Little did I know that this tiny business I started in my mom’s den would grow into one of the tactical equipment industry’s leaders and provide me with a lifelong passion that would feed my family and hundreds of others. While the business has evolved in many ways over the past almost four decades, one thing has remained constant. Every year I run a larger and more complicated enterprise and — in the process — stretch my leadership skillset to its limits.
Over the years, perhaps the most frequent question I receive from strangers is a variant of “What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started AARDVARK?” Although there is not a single lesson learned, five lessons (learned through errors and pain) would have been very valuable when I was a budding entrepreneur.
Rule 1 — It is not about you!
As a new business owner or a new leader, it is very easy to fancy yourself important. Moving up the chain in an organization or supervising others tends to make us prideful, and we begin to value ourselves a little bit too much.
There is no easy way to break this to you, you are the least important person in your business!
The order of importance is very simple: Your people, your clients, then you. The people who work for you are the most important people to your business and require the most attention. Take care of them before anyone else. While it is easy to believe the customer is always right, without your people, there won’t be a customer.
Never let your people be mistreated; focus on keeping them happy and safe first. Your clients or customers are the next most important. They are why you have a business and need to be treated that way. Focus on their happiness and care about them. If you don’t, they will leave. If you do, they will be loyal to you for your career. There is a great book called Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek. Read it, learn it, and live it. It’s not just a metaphor. It’s a way of life. You should always be the last person to eat, both literally and figuratively.
Rule 2 – You must have a higher purpose than making money
Making money is the reason we all start a business. We see someone doing something poorly or we see an unmet need and think, “I will be rich!” This impulse drives us to take the risks needed to create a business or take on a new job. While this is a necessary step on the road to success, it is not sufficient to create success. Money is not as strong a motivator as you would think. Sure, you are driven towards it when you don’t have it.
But money is a very short-term and very fickle purpose. Money does not motivate the passion and dedication needed to create a successful team. It turns out that for almost all people, doing something to help other people is what they really care about and what will really motivate them.
It took me many years to figure this out. For years I chased money and wondered why it was so difficult to catch. Somewhere along the route, I accidentally discovered passion and purpose in what I do. By passion, I mean a true desire to help other people. In my case, military and law enforcement tactical operators.
Rather than being driven by trying to sell things and make money, I began to see myself as driven to ensure the safety of other people. Now, almost 40 years later, long after money stopped being a driver, my fire still burns bright. More importantly, the fire that burns inside me engulfs others to help the mission. It makes my teammates work hard, it makes them care about what they do, and it makes them spend their own time thinking about how we can protect our clients.
Ironically, it is also the best marketing tool we have. Caring about your clients resonates with them emotionally. It is literally the thing that attracts clients to the business and keeps them there. So, if you cannot articulate your team’s purpose in a single sentence, it is time for a reassessment. In the words of Einstein, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
Rule 3 — Hire people, not qualifications
Early on in my career, I had the opportunity to hire a “superstar” sales guy away from a competitor. He was demanding more money than I wanted to pay, but the idea of not only growing my business but also hurting my competitor was too attractive.
The problem was, I didn’t like him. He was condescending and, quite frankly, kind of a jerk. I was very concerned that he would hurt the business, but in the end, he was highly qualified, and the sirens song of harming a competitor was too strong, so I hired him. Bad decision!
Trading company culture for qualifications is a terrible deal. It wasn’t long before we knew I had made a terrible decision. While he certainly was good at sales, everyone hated him. He was a morale cancer, and it was clear I screwed up chasing qualifications rather than culture. As a result, when I caught him standing over a female coworker seated at her desk, with his finger in her face yelling at her, it was clear his days with us were ending.
But, the damage was done; I had violated Rule #1, traded my people’s happiness for sales and traded a great deal of my credibility with my people in the process. Remember that you are building a team and not a resume. Culture trumps everything! Do not hire people based on their qualifications; hope it will work out. Hire people who fit your culture and also happen to be qualified. If you have to choose between culture and skills, pick culture every time! You can train people to do a job. You cannot train them to be good people.
Rule 4 – Fix the problem, not the blame
As a young leader, I was very focused on ensuring the people who worked for me did exactly what I wanted them to do. I micromanaged everything, and I made sure I knew who was at fault when an error occurred. I viewed mistakes as the result of individual inattention that had to be fixed with blaming and atonement. I looked at shame as a tool that leads to better behavior.
This was partly because I was inexperienced and partly because I did not understand how business processes and systems work. No matter what the industry is, preventing errors is done through a system. A system that trains people not to make errors, checks to ensure they are not making errors and finally uses errors or near misses as opportunities for improvement. To accomplish this, everyone must be comfortable sharing their mistakes and preventing future errors must be a group effort.
Error prevention is not an individual thing, it is a group effort. As a leader, when errors in the system occur, they are your responsibility and not your team’s. Don’t get caught up in trying to decide who made the mistake. When a mistake is made (assuming it is not an intentional act or an act of carelessness), it is the result of your failing to train adequately or a system that failed to mitigate the risk of error properly.
Stop worrying about who did it and prevent it from happening again! Bad employees will still stick out, and your team usually identifies them before you can. Create an environment that allows for truthful recognition of issues, not where people go into hiding every time an error occurs.
Rule 5 — Your job is to get the right answer, not supply it!
Perhaps the greatest mistake I made as a young leader was the belief that I had to be the source of answers for every question. I think I probably felt like the fact that I was in charge meant I had to be the smartest guy in the room. As a result, I often failed to harness all of the amazing brain power available to me through employees, clients and friends.
After all, when you are the leader and appoint yourself the source of all answers, no one will question that authority, and in turn, you will silence your available resources. Steve Jobs once reportedly said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
Truer words were never spoken. Your job as a leader is to harness all your resources to find the best solution to any problem. The feeling that you are the smartest person in the room is rooted either in ego/arrogance or insecurity and fear of being found out to be an imposter.
In either of these cases, you are not helping the team you lead. I now see my role as a curator of information and resources. If I am good at my job, I have a lot of resources available to me and am more likely to get to the right place. If we succeed, it is because my team found the right answer. If we fail, it is because I failed to uncover the right solution. If this feels awkward, please see Rule 1 above, “it’s not about you!”
It has been nearly four decades since I proudly told my mom I’d be starting a business in her house. Through that time and hundreds of millions of dollars in business, I can honestly say I learned some painful lessons. Some of these were financially painful, some just embarrassing and others both. But, the five discussed above were by far the most lasting. As the old saying goes, “If I had I known then what I know now,” it would have genuinely made a difference in how I ran my business and conducted my life.