Read an Excerpt
From Chapter 1: ALL OF MY HEROES ARE ENTREPRENEURS
Ruth Brooks' Ten Rules For Small Business
1. You got to be really honest, 'specially with yourself.
2. You got to work real hard and stay as late as the customers do.
3. You got to kinda learn to read peoples' faces to know if they's good or bad.
4. You cain't be no quitter.
5. Don't let nobody have what you already bought without paying for it.
6. Make some profit on whatever you sell.
7. Separate each one who comes in from some of his money before he gets out the door.
8. You have to be nice to folks if you want them to come back.
9. It ain't what you make, it's what you still got.
10. The main thing is to be happy in whatever you do.
The origins of this book and the sources of many of my greatest childhood memories lie in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in North Georgia, a beautiful and unique part of the world where I spent many boyhood summers at camp.
Aside from its mountains, lakes, rivers and forests, North Georgia has many great characters one of them is Ruth Brooks, who just may be the most savvy small-business entrepreneur I have ever known. Ruth and her entrepreneurial spirit inspired me to do this book.
Though she has never been within 50 miles of a business school, Ruth's entrepreneurial instincts and her common sense approach to business and life have resulted in considerable success for this self-educated country woman. Along with her Brooks's Lil' General Store And Cafe, she and her husband Bobby also own a 315-acre farm and chicken ranch, a mobile-home park, rental properties, and real estate up and down the hills and hollers behind her store.
I love going down to Ruth's place to talk about business because she cuts through the jargon and fads and gets straight to the heart of it. Running a small business is hard work, but it is not all that complicated, though sometimes we try to make it seem that way. When I find myself doing that I come and crawl up on the counter next to Ruth's cash register and I talk to her while she rings up the sales. She sets me straight.
"When we first bought this place, I talked to this ol' feller from Monroe, Georgia, who had a place for years and years, and he told me the key to stayin' in business is to always make sure that you separate a feller from some of his money before he gets out the door, no matter what it takes," Ruth told me recently. "I always keep that in my head and even if someone comes in here and is ugly to me, I'm nice to them and I take their money and when they leave, I wave goodbye because you have to be nice to folks or they won't come back."
Simple? Without a doubt. Why is it then, that so many businesses, even major corporations, forget? How many businesses have faltered or even failed because they got away from serving the customer or client and instead became focused on serving only their own interests?
Whenever I leave Ruth's store after talking business with her, I find myself charged up to get back to what I most enjoy doing starting and running businesses the way they should be run, with the focus on bringing value to my customers and clients.
In this book, I have set out to do for you what Ruth always does for me. My goal is to bring value to you as a small-business entrepreneur by cutting through the jargon and fads, setting you straight and charging you up to get out there and do business the way it has to be done, with enthusiasm and energy. In these pages, I offer you advice and encouragement on small-business entrepreneurship and all that it encompasses including:
• Looking at what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur in today's dynamic small business market
• Learning to spot and move on business opportunities
• Identifying the business best suited to your interests and talents
• Starting a business and dealing with all of the challenges that will confront you
• Finding sources of financing best suited to your business and to your own financial health
• Marketing your business by pouring ingenuity and thoughtfulness into it rather than money
• Building your employee team and developing a healthy and responsive culture within your business
• Training yourself to read the signs for potential problems that may arise in your business
• Learning to view setbacks and difficult times in business as opportunities to increase your understanding and knowledge rather than being defeated by them
• Sustaining your small business over the long term by focusing on bringing value to your customers and clients
The Scrambling Entrepreneur
Where do I get off as an authority on small-business entrepreneurship? To paraphrase an old television commercial, "I'm Fran Tarkenton and I am no longer a football player, although I used to play one on TV." You probably are aware that I was a professional quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings and the New York Giants, but you may not know that I have been a business entrepreneur for much longer than I ever played football. A great deal of the advice and examples in this book will come out of my own experiences over more than 30 years of starting and running diverse enterprises ranging from health insurance and employee-benefits companies, to management consulting, fast-food restaurants, software sales, infomercial-making, and other businesses. In these pages, you will find scores of examples and tips from other small-business entrepreneurs across the country many of them friends of mine.
I may be best known as a former professional athlete, but I have been an entrepreneur nearly all of my life. In my early childhood, my father was a preacher in a poor neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and later, in Athens, Georgia. I worked as a child to help my family survive, and I have never stopped working. In fact, even when I was the starting quarterback for the University of Georgia Bulldogs in my hometown of Athens, I paid my living expenses by selling policies for the Franklin Life Insurance Company. You won't find it in any of the NCAA record books, but as I led the Georgia Bulldogs to a 10-and-1 season and victory in the Orange Bowl, I was also leading all other Franklin Life salesmen across the state of Georgia in the sale of policies.
Yes, I have thrown a lot of football passes in my life. But I have also made hundreds of business presentations. I played in three Super Bowls but, as I noted earlier, I also launched nine of my own businesses.
As I write this, I am sitting in my office 11 stories above Atlanta's Buckhead retail, commercial, and residential neighborhood. I am wearing blue jeans, an old Polo shirt, and no shoes. This is my standard work outfit and my normal working posture when I am not talking on the speaker phone while wandering around my office swinging a baseball bat, tossing a football in the air, or enjoying a Coca-Cola. (After all, I am on the board of directors of Coca-Cola Enterprises.)
If you see me in a suit and tie, I am either on my way to a funeral, a wedding, or a business meeting. I don't dress up if I don't have to. And most of the time, I don't have to because I work for myself. As the owner of my own business, nobody tells me what to do other than my wife, my kids, my grandkids, and sometimes my administrative assistant, Jill, of course.
I imagine that you are pretty much the same way. You may not have your own business yet, but you would like to. You may not even know for sure what kind of business you want to have, but you like the idea of being your own boss, setting your own hours, vacationing when the urge strikes you, and reaping the full rewards of your own hard work.
Welcome to the club it is growing bigger and bigger every day. One third of all households have been or are involved in small business, according to the Wall Street Journal. There is a huge new wave of small business entrepreneurship sweeping the country and the world right now, and I have written this book to help you join that movement and provide you with information that will help you to thrive.
I don't know if I understand the small-business entrepreneur any better than anyone else, but I do know that I have spent many fruitful hours with all sorts of them over the years, sitting in their offices and shops, talking about the issues and challenges they face day in and day out. I do it in airports at shoe-shine stands. I do it in towns all over the country when I am speaking to business groups.
If I am asked to give a speech or take part in a seminar, I don't do my bit and go home, I make it a point to hang around if I can, to sit in hotel lobbies or restaurants and talk with people about their businesses. I believe that the best way to learn about entrepreneurship is to talk to those who have walked the walk.
Learning from Those Who Have Done It
Most successful entrepreneurs I know love to talk and share information with other entrepreneurs. Nearly all of them are information junkies. They gather and share information rabidly because they realize it is a wellspring of fresh ideas and opportunities. I don't think there is a better source of information about small business than small-business owners.
I majored in business in college, and I can honestly tell you that I don't think my college education has a thing to do with my business success. (I won't blame it for my failures either.) College business classes are too often taught by people who have never had to meet a payroll or fight the competition for customers. The subject matter in classes is largely theoretical and philosophical rather than practical, which may be why a high percentage of business-school graduates from Harvard and Wharton go into consulting or corporate jobs rather than starting their own businesses.
Business schools can give you a foundation of knowledge, and although more and more schools have courses or programs in entrepreneurship, even those programs tend to put grad students in charge. The problem with the highly structured colleges and universities is that entrepreneurship cuts across disciplines, which makes it difficult to fit it into the tenure track that is entrenched in conservative higher education.
No one should pass up the opportunity for an education, but if you ask most entrepreneurs how much of their success is a direct result of their formal schooling, I'd wager most would give it minimal credit. Entrepreneurs need practical advice from people who have gotten their hands dirty in the stockroom and faced a bank loan officer across the table.
I've always believed in going to the best source for information. When I started playing professional football, I was 20 years old. Although most quarterbacks watch game films to study opposing defenses, I also went to school on all the other quarterbacks in the league. After our regular team meetings were over, I would go to the film library and pull out tapes of opposing offenses, so I could see how other, more experienced quarterbacks were dealing with the challenges I was going to face. It worked for me in football, and it has worked for me in business, to study those who have played the same game.
That is what I want to share with you in this book: real life experiences related by successful small-business entrepreneurs. They can't survive by hiding in a bureaucracy or letting subordinates do all of the work. They are on the battle line every day. They learn quickly what works and they stick with it, or they simply don't last. If Ruth Brooks doesn't stock fresh bread on her store shelves or cold soda pop in the coolers, the customers will go down the road in a heartbeat.
Small businesses cannot afford to make the same mistakes that many larger and more established businesses get away with, and in this book, I want to help you learn to avoid mistakes and develop your entrepreneurial instincts.
Simple Truths, Difficult Lessons
IBM could have used Ruth Brooks a few years ago when it became so arrogant that it lost sight of its own market and was very nearly destroyed. IBM grew complacent because it controlled the computer market from top to bottom. When you had one of their mainframes, you had to buy their software because they refused to integrate with other computer companies. They controlled 60 percent of the computing market and had 75 percent of the profits in the industry. They were dictating to their customers what they could and could not buy.
In its greed and arrogance, IBM focused on serving its own needs first, and put its customers' needs way down the list. They tried to shut out the competition, but their neglect of customer service left a wide hole for the competition to step into. It was not long before young entrepreneurs capitalized on that attitude. Steve Jobs at Apple Computers and Bill Gates at Microsoft undermined the giant mainframe computer maker by creating personal computers and software that better served consumers' needs. Jobs himself later fell victim to the same problem when he decided that Apple could dictate what people should want, rather than responding to their needs, and his business took a plunge. Some say Gates could eventually fall prey to the same problem, but I doubt it. He seems more willing to form alliances in order to expand his product base.
Gates seems to be able to stay rooted in the basic truth of business, which is at the heart of Ruth Brooks's entrepreneurial success too: You have to remain focused on serving your customers. That simple philosophy seems to be lost by many entrepreneurs as their businesses grow, and that is why I will stress it in this book. That is the lesson, also, that I always am reminded of when I visit Ruth's place, which is business at its most basic level.
I met Ruth about 10 years ago when I walked into her general store in Habersham County on the edge of Lake Burton, where I have a family vacation home. I had stopped to get gasoline and after I pumped it, I went inside the simple little country store and began looking around for a few groceries. Ruth, a slow-talking woman with a wealth of common sense and a great deal of grit, was behind the counter eyeballing me suspiciously as I browsed the two aisles of food in her little store.
Finally, she said, "Ya'll have to pay for your gas first," and pointed to a sign with the same message.
You see, Ruth had been burned a few times by shifty tourists and travelers who would put gas in their cars, come in and buy a few food items or drinks, and then pay only for the groceries and not the fuel. So she had a policy. Pay for the gas, then shop for groceries.
I quickly discovered that Ruth had a lot of policies, and a lot of signs announcing them. We don't take no checks. We don't take no credit cards. No pets. "Every time somebody finds a new way to aggravate me, I write a sign, so I have a lot of signs," Ruth explained.
She grew up in the North Georgia mountains. Her dad was a dirt farmer and the local "cow doctor," a sort of folk veterinarian. Neither of Ruth's parents made it past the fifth grade. She got no further than high school herself, "but my Daddy and Mommy were really smart about telling us stuff."
Today, if you walked into Ruth's store, and judged her solely on her speech pattern, you might make the mistake of assuming that she is not a particularly astute business person. You would be most sorely wrong. "This is what is funny. 'Cause I don't talk proper and stuff, people thinks I am dumb, and sometimes they try to take advantage of me," she said.
Ruth is amused by this because, as you have probably figured out by now, Ruth is dumb as a fox. She is also probably one of the wealthiest women in North Georgia. Ruth Brooks may be country, but she is not simple. She is a very successful and resourceful small-business entrepreneur. She is smart, quick-witted, and tenacious. Just ask the escaped convicts who came into her store one day and thought they might take advantage of this slow-talking country gal behind the counter. Just recently, she caught a fuel-delivery man shorting her on her gasoline. "I told them they'd better fire him before I killed him," she said. "And they did too."
But that Ruth Brooks detective story pales compared to The Case of the Fugitive Shoppers. "These fellas broke jail in Florida and they come up here getting away and stopped to get 22 gallons of gas and while they were pumping out there, the mountain patrol called and asked if I had seen such-and-such a van because it was stolen by these escaped fellas. I said it was parked at my store right now getting filled with gas. The mountain patrol told me 'Detain them' and I said 'How?' and they said 'Ruth, we are sure you can think of somethin'.'"
"Well, these fellas had picked up an ol' girl in South Georgia somewhere, and her and one of them came in and packed up half the store and when they got it all, they said they was goin' to give me a check. I told them I wouldn't take no check because I had me a good job and they was hard to find and I can't take a check because I would get fired by my boss. They didn't know I was the owner and I didn't tell them because if they ever knowed I owned this store they probably would have shot me," she said.
Ruth stalled them for a while by pretending that she was having difficulty adding up all the items they had put in their grocery cart. Then she told the bad guys that she had to call her boss to see if she could take their check. As they watched, she dialed the sheriff's office and as they listened, she pretended to be talking to her boss but was really letting the lawmen know that the escaped cons were still at her store.
Finally, the police arrived and arrested the cons without any difficulty, although they later found a shotgun under the hood of the van. Ruth kept her groceries and when the sheriff asked if she wanted to press theft charges for the gasoline that they had not paid for, Ruth said no, she would just help herself to some of the goods in their van. "So I took me a Skil saw," she said proudly.
Copyright © 1997 by Fran Tarkenton