5 Business Lessons I Learned From My Dad the Roofer
My childhood summers were like those of most kids whose parents work for themselves: we went to work too.
My dad, a roofer and contractor, was constantly working -- finishing a job, starting a new one, trying to get more customers. As I was learning the ropes -- how to install flashing and a metal drip edge, which underlayment was up to code -- I absorbed five big lessons that have helped me build my technology company.
This is what’s stuck with me:
1. Do something, even if it’s wrong.
My dad still loves to say this. He doesn’t, of course, mean you should do something knowing it’s wrong (that’s just dumb). Fear or inertia too often paralyzes us into inaction, yet just as often -- and compared to simply getting it wrong -- doing nothing is definitely the greater sin. We need to learn by doing and, sometimes, from our mistakes. In software, this happens all the time -- you can iterate endlessly but why? Ship a decent version and learn from user feedback to get closer to perfection.
At Broadly, we offer small business customers the option to let us put a website up for them. It’s really hard to get the content we need for the “About Us” section from them. Almost 100 percent of the time, we get nothing back. So we started drafting a quick bio for them and now we have an almost 100 percent response rate. Turns out that even when our first draft isn't perfect, it’s the perfect starting place for the majority of our customers.
2. “Stick it and move on.”
You can always move forward, in any job. With my dad, speed was always key. You wanted to get it right but not let perfect be the enemy of the good.
Good contractors understand error tolerances. When you’re doing internal framing, it doesn’t matter if you’re off an eighth or even a quarter of an inch in certain places. Because it doesn’t affect the integrity of the building, there’s no need to slowly, painstakinglyget that eighth of an inch. Stick it and move on.
Here we emphasize quality but speed matters too. There are points in software and in building a house where perfect is essential. But there are times where expending the effort to refine some minor feature won’t achieve anything substantive - but will slow you down. The trick is knowing the difference.
3: When the computer is the “confuser.”
My dad is still not comfortable with his computer -- he calls it the “confuser” -- and he’s not alone. That’s something technologists tend to forget. We assume that everyone finds technology as exciting and world-bending as we do. But in my work, the local businesses we serve aren’t particularly excited to deal with software and don’t care about the complexities. They’re not impressed by some widget they’ll never use that took hours to create.
They simply want it to work.
If it’s confusing users more than it’s helping them, it’s a crappy tool. It’s not on the user to learn it -- it's on you to fix it. Early adopters might love the challenge and nuances of the newest toy but the average consumer just wants it to get the job done with minimal effort from them. So make that happen.
4: Social proof matters.
When I was working with my dad, I saw up close and personally that social proof really mattered to people. When my dad started his business, a friend named Roy taught him about sales. Roy was an absolute genius at helping my dad land new customers. They’d put in a bid but, inevitably, some new company we’d never heard of would undercut us. That’s when Roy would start talking.
“Are they in the Yellow Pages?” he’d ask. “How big’s their ad? What insurance do they carry? Are they licensed? You know, if they’re not in the Yellow Pages, they haven’t been here in town long. You got their references?” He’d point out all the elements that, taken collectively, were clear signals that the customer couldn’t trust this fly-by-night competitor.
That’s what gave us the idea to incorporate online reviews into our product. In the digital age, this feedback on Yelp, Google, Facebook and Next Door is the word-of-mouth, the social proof, that helps consumers determine which businesses are trustworthy.
5: Love the smell of tar in the morning.
My uncle worked with us and he channeled Apocalypse Now whenever we started a job. “I love the smell of hot tar in the morning,” he’d say with a big grin. This, of course, was an obvious lie. No one loves tar. It’s dangerous, number one. But it’s also hot, sticky and the kind of stink that gets into your nose and stays there.
But what I took from this was whatever you do, sometimes the work is hard and annoying. How you approach it really is what makes the difference. Embrace the suck. Because when you get through the hard parts and see what you built, what you made, what you and your team did together, it’s truly an awesome feeling.