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Lessons Learned on a Pizza Shop Owner's Long Entrepreneurial Journey

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Entrepreneurship is the engine of this great nation. It starts with a good idea and grows when you add the right ingredients. Then, it’s about tinkering with the recipe to make it just right. While entrepreneurship is not expressly listed on a Papa John’s menu, it is something we, like most small businesses, serve up every day.

Like most entrepreneurs, I have made my share of business mistakes. If missteps were a dart board, I promise you I’ve filled up the target many times over. But I share my story of entrepreneurship because every business starts with one person, one idea and one set of priorities.

Related: The Top 10 Lessons Learned in the Trenches of Startup Year 1

Entrepreneurship is in my DNA and comes from the three most important men in my life – my great-grandfather, Papaw and daddy. They taught me the value of a hard day’s work, the thrill of reward that comes with great risk and the importance of having a loving family and great people behind you to catch you when you stumble.

When I was 15, I took my first job making pizza. I knew if the tray came back half full of pizza, I didn’t make the pizza right. But when the tray came back empty, then I knew I made the pizza well. As a teenager, I learned quality mattered.

Later, when I was 23, I started selling pizza out of the broom closet of my daddy’s lounge As my pizza business grew, I decided to knock down the broom closet to make more room and build the very first Papa John’s, which today is the third-largest pizza delivery company in the world with 4,400 restaurants in all 50 states and 35 countries. I look at my business today as a small business: one store, 4,400 times.

If you’re an entrepreneur, there are three considerations for your journey: focus, people and culture.

Do what you do – and do it well. You could make baby products, specialized linens or new digital apps. Whatever it is, strive to be the best and find a way to focus your intent. I’m determined to make us the No. 1 pizza company in the world. Our path to the top is as it was 30 years ago when I founded the company: we’re focused on quality – and that’s different than anyone else.

Related: Entrepreneur Smarts: 30 Lessons I Learned in 30 Years

While I represent the brand and sell it every day, I can’t make it come to life by myself. That brings me to my second lesson: people. People are your Number One asset. People form your team whether they’re your executives, your managers or your drivers. Developing people is the key to an entrepreneur’s growth. The idea for your business may belong to you but bringing that idea to life every day depends on other people throughout your organization.

When developing people, you need a systematic way to identify entrepreneurs in your organization, those who come up with new ideas, take risks and learn from mistakes. Emphasize people, find like-minded souls and cultivate them through training. Teach them to be entrepreneurs.

One more ingredient is needed, beyond focus and people, to move from good to great: you have to build a culture where questioning leaders and decisions – including those of the CEO – is OK, it’s embraced and it’s rewarded. In our culture of entrepreneurship, the term I use is “collaborative confrontation.” At Papa John’s, we have a product that has remained virtually the same for 30 years. Yet, we give our people permission to try things, to tinker, to challenge. That’s how we drive innovation.

No matter your sector, no matter your product, no matter your company, imagine the ideas, evolutions and revolutions that can be generated when you invite people to challenge each other in a healthy way. Trial and error drives innovation and productivity. That inevitably helps improve quality. We don’t want to take away independent critical judgment. Our employees need freedom to test, to tinker, to succeed, and yes, to fail.

Leadership as an entrepreneur means seeing the market place, deciding how you’ll be different and then figuring out how you’ll make it happen. That’s a formula for my business or any business that wants to focus on quality for consumers.

Related: 3 Lessons Learned From a Decade in Franchising

John Schnatter

Written By

 In 1984, John Schnatter started Papa John’s Pizza out of a broom closet at the back of his father’s pub. Today, Papa John's is one of the largest pizza delivery companies in the world with approximately 4,200 restaurants in all 50 states and 35 countries.