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Father Knows Best

Business lessons from a business writer's dad . . . and what to pass on to the next generation

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As a child, I remember my father always waking very early, quietly putting on his clothes and going off to work. To arrive in time to open his tiny clothing store at 8:30, he needed to leave our apartment at 7 a.m. After all, he had to take the Q17A bus to Jamaica Avenue, where he took the BMT train to Elder Avenue in Williamsburgh, Brooklyn. The last leg was a six-block, rain-snow-or-shine walk through a neighborhood that smelled like a dumpster. Lesson learned: It ís very important to work. No excuses.

Marty Nemko is an Oakland, California-based SOHO and career consultant. He hosts Work with Marty Nemko on a National Public Radio affiliate in San Francisco, and writes a column that appears in the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle. His latest book is Cool Careers for Dummies. Reach him at

Lesson #2

When I turned 12, I would, on some Saturdays, go to my father's store to help out. My job: set up the clothing displays--shirts sitting on sawhorse tables, jackets hanging from the awning. Then for the rest of the day, I'd play 12-year-old security guard, watching to be sure no one stole anything. Not only was I a most callow guard, I received the world's shortest training course: 'Respect but suspect.'

It was enough. A few times each day, Iíd notice some suspicious customer alternating rapid-fire looks between me and a piece of clothing. I learned how to look the person in the eye, smile and say, 'May I help you?' Usually that worked, but occasionally, the good-for-nothing would grab something and race off. The first time, I raced after the thief and my father yelled, 'Martin, stop' It's not worth it.' Lesson learned: Safety is more important than money.

Lesson #3

After 10 years of my father's three-hour public transit commute, he saved up enough money to buy his first car, a 1953 Chevy-he wouldn't buy one until he could afford to pay for it without a loan. Lesson not taught but learned: Only buy what you can afford.

There are thousands of businesses, especially those run from home offices, that require only a small investment. Before considering high-cost businesses such as brick-and-mortar stores that normally require large loans, be sure you've checked out small-investment alternatives.

Lesson #4

Besides the work lessons my father taught me, I'd teach my child a few others. First of all, if my child has a good mind and isn't a procrastinator, I'd encourage him or her to be self-employed. Here's what I'd say: 'Work for someone else and chances are they'll want to keep most of the profit for themselves and pay you the least they can get away with. They're usually not afraid of your quitting--there's always a desperate person willing to work for low wages. It's tough to earn a good living when someone else is deciding how much you should earn. I want you to be the person deciding how much you should earn.'

Lesson #5

Unfortunately, a lot of businesses fail within a few years, and I want my child to succeed. Here are some ideas he or she might consider:

  • Sell a service, not a product. A service business generally costs much less to start and to keep running. For example, I'm a career counselor. My start-up costs, especially because I chose to work in a home office, were tiny. Compare that with owning even a modest business like a greeting-card shop. That requires thousands of dollars of inventory, rent, etc. Another advantage of service businesses is high profit margins: There's no cost of goods, so you keep most of the dollars you take in.

Those advantages are crucial, because nearly every business owner makes mistakes, especially in the beginning. If your costs are low and profit margin is high, you can afford to make mistakes without going bankrupt. For example, with most service businesses, if your first marketing strategy fails, it's no disaster. You simply try something else. But if you're paying thousands of dollars a month for things like inventory and rent, and your first marketing effort fails, you may quickly run out of money and, thud-you're out of business.

Lesson #6

Don't waste your time getting technical expertise. Unless you love the thought of submersing yourself in techno-minutiae forever, don't bother obtaining technical expertise. It takes years, is boring and requires you to keep learning esoterica all your life. You can always hire technical experts; you should learn how to run a business.

So how should you learn to run a business? Volunteer or work for successful businesspeople. The best experience comes from hands-on work.

Lesson #7

Spend most of your time marketing. No matter how good your service or product is, you'll have a hard time succeeding if you don't spend a lot of time marketing. And here are some ways to market yourself for free:

  • Send press releases to local media.
  • Get interviewed on a talk show. Especially on smaller stations, getting on the air is easier than you may think.
  • Post fliers where your target customers will see them. If I were looking for new clients, I might post fliers near a college's career center saying, 'Want more from your career center? I pick up where career centers leave off.'
  • Write an article for a trade publication or have someone else write one about your business. My favorite clients are doctors, so I might write a piece for the local medical society's newsletter titled, 'When Doctors Need a Career Transplant.'
  • Give speeches or seminars at conventions and trade shows attended by your target audience.
  • Figure out a category of businessperson you could cross-refer with: 'I'll send you mine if you'll send me yours.' In my case, as a career consultant I'd target psychotherapists. I'd attend a local conference of therapists, and during the breaks, chat with people until I found someone to whom I could honorably refer clients.
  • Make a list of people who could most benefit from you. Ask nothing of them. Get together socially, or send them an article they might find interesting. Only after you've done a few such things for or with them can you gently start to call in some chips.

Although I have many years of schooling, the lessons I learned from my father and from successful businesspeople have had the greatest impact on me. Are there any lessons in particular you remember? Any you want to pass on to your children?