In business, you can learn something new and unexpected at virtually any time or any place. With that in mind, the CarolRoth.com contributor network of entrepreneurs, advisors and experts have shared their most unexpected or unusual business lessons. Their answers are presented below in no particular order.
You may notice some of the same lessons listed, but I kept them separate, as something in the way one is framed may resonate differently with you.
1. The Power of Free
It is a strange fact that the more value you give away, the better your business becomes. In Carol's case, she gives visibility to her blog writers for free, gaining knowledge and insights in the process. The first thing I did when I started my business 10 years ago was give away a free research report. In two days, I had a global company as a client. Today, I heard from a potential client that downloaded my free book. The more value you give away, the more you make- the power of reciprocity!
2. Play it, Don't Spray it
When marketing your business, one lesson I have learned is that you must have a detailed plan and follow the plan. Earlier on, I tried a variety of costly marketing strategies and I was encouraged by a sales rep that lots of people would see them. It is possible that people saw the ads, but many of them produced no sales.
So, rather than trying every offer you get to advertise...know what your message is and what you want to sell. Make that your play and focus and don't try every possible method out there.
3. Don't Make it Up!
If/when someone didn't return my phone call/email, I made it up that they weren't interested in our products/services. I learned that I needed to ask the question. I spent 3 1/2 hours with a potential client and they didn't respond to my subsequent email. It didn't compute to me. Why spend so much time if they weren't interested? Finally in my next email, I asked point blank if there was interest in our services and I got an immediate response; yes they were and the timing wasn't good.
4. Customers are Deadbeats!
Ok, maybe deadbeat is a little strong (I do love my customers), but it's always a challenge to get them to pay their bills on time.
Who knew that collecting based on approved purchase orders would be such a pain? Tactful collections are a delicate balance between keeping happy customers and staying in business! It helps if you have someone else in your organization other than the person managing the account do collections for you.
5. Be Yourself, Know Yourself
One of the most important business lessons that I learned came through my work with an Exec Coach, John Agno, when I realized that I wasn't operating with internal integrity.
It is important to know, understand, and accept all of yourself – idiosyncrasies and all. You are better at some things and worse at others. Know your strengths and blind spots. No one is perfect and no one fits in everywhere.
Be true to yourself and who you are. You are happiest when you are in alignment inside and out.
6. Late is OK if it's WOW!!!
Of course, the ideal is to be on time. But, there have been instances when I've told clients that I need more time to make their project perfect. I used to stress about this. But I've never had a problem when I explain an expanded timeline as a quality issue. These clients have referred friends and family, undoubtedly because they received a superior result!
7. Be Prepared for the Unprepared
Preparation will give you confidence. Confidence will give you an edge in a very competitive environment. Plan, then Prepare, and then when you think you're ready, start all over again. I learned that by being more prepared than I need to be, it puts me in the winner's circle!
8. Don't Listen to Everyone!
Nowadays, everyone wants to give you their advice. Some people would rather get some formula from someone else on how to do something, rather than create their own. Others live to blaze their own path. As an entrepreneur, you have to blaze your own path and listening to everyone's advice will confuse you at best. Find your own answer!
9. You're Not Born with It
I've learned that being a successful business owner takes a whole second set of skills and knowledge, above being an expert in my field. I encourage all business owners to continue learning from the experts, but not to let that learning derail them from doing the important parts of marketing their business. Don't wait to master it all; there will always be more to learn! I dedicate several hours each week to learning new business development strategies that I implement and pass onto my clients.
In the past three years, I've reinvented myself. Recently, I was forced due to the downturn in my paid writing assignments to take a retail job. I've found that I work 1000% harder for 10 dollars per hour than I did for my prior life earning a corporate wage. The lesson? Do what you love, what you are passionate about always, but be prepared to take a big pay cut. If you can take the $ out of the equation, you can live your life as you see fit!
11. Sell to the Greedy...
...Not to the Needy
People don’t buy what they need. They buy what they want. Success doesn’t follow this bad advice: “Find a need and fill it”.
That formula for failure was preached in old business books. Consider this: Who needs to join a fitness club? Unfit people. But visit the gym and who do you find? Fit people. They want to go. Those who need it the most don’t go because they don’t want it.
My mentor, Peter Urs Bender clarified this for me with his memorable quip.
12. Are They REALLY "All That"?
In 32 years of business, I have learned that every single person that I THOUGHT was more successful than I was, WASN'T! Sometimes, it took me awhile to find out, but the knowledge was priceless once I did!
Lesson: Trust YOURSELF, follow your OWN dream, and know that YOU are quite enough!
13. The Vital Skill of Stopping…
In nearly 2 decades of coaching clients on their marketing programs, I find the discipline to consistently work on those programs is most important, but stopping work on them is almost as important. If you spend 3 hours working on an ad campaign today, you'll sacrifice other things that need to be done. Then, playing catch-up tomorrow, you'll not work on marketing at all. It's better to work 30 minutes a day, every day on vital projects and in the process, build an unshakable habit that carries forever.
The biggest lesson I learned in business is to have honesty in all of your dealings. Give your customers the opportunity to trust you and look to you for guidance in the way they manage their lives. As a practicing pharmacist, over 25 years, I built up a reputation for being blunt and honest. I called a spade a spade, and my only enemies became those who were the scamsters in the town we lived, and that included Doctors who made an incorrect diagnosis because they were pressed for time.
15. Make a Dent in the Universe
The companies that make a real impact in the marketplace are not the ones that produce what people think they want, but rather the ones that produce what people will want but don't know it. The ability to know what people will want before they know it exists is not a result of intensive market research, focus groups, or telemarketing surveys. Knowing what people want is based on understanding the human condition: the motivating factors that move people from disinterest to action.
16. The Secret Psychology
I have the Grand Masters of sales to thank for my discovery of a secret psychology in selling. Selling is the lifeblood of corporations, as it creates the revenue.
After studying sales for years, I found myself introducing new concepts and new products to orthopedic surgeons. They were not buying. I traced that to an inability to change and began coming up with workarounds. This resulted in an entire program for handling the psychology of buyers.
17. Brother, Can You Spare a Card?
My businesswomen's group members all have business card-holding name badges. Not only have I attached some "bling" to the frame to catch peoples' eyes, but I have learned to place an additional two cards inside of it. Invariably, I will run out of business cards and am in need of another, so all I have to do is slide one out and I will still have all of my pertinent information in place.
18. Cash Flow Can Be Slow
I have learned that cash flow can be extremely slow, depending on what industry you operate in. For example, if you own a service based business the turnaround time to receive full payment from your clients can take up to 90 days (or more). This could put you in a cash crunch, so you should always have working capital available to cover expenses during cash shortages; otherwise, your business will suffer.
19. Can't Judge Book by its Cover
You never know who is going to be your boss, so you should treat all people, at all levels, with respect and dignity, even if they don't deserve it. One day, the little geek who sits in the corner of your office could become your new boss and it will be harder to try to elicit respect from him then, especially if you hadn't been kind to him in the 1st place. Don't judge people based on their looks and attitudes. Be nice to everyone.
20. Creative Time is Priceless
A mentor, Gene, had a leather couch and round table and his desk in the office. Many times, I found him reclined on the couch thinking. He would acknowledge me by pointing to the table. A few minutes later he would rise, sit at the table and show me a new idea he had been thinking about. A few weeks later, it was implemented! Block time for creative thinking & problem solving. Gene had some great strategic ideas that worked. Are we too busy to be creative?
21. Any Bribe is a Bad Bribe
When you're asked to pay a bribe to a prospect or client, there really is no positive outcome. I was asked by an exec to help her with a vacation home payment in exchange for a substantial job. I declined. I was called back in for another meeting and when the elevator door opened to take me to her floor, she stepped out...with an armed guard on both sides and a pitiful cardboard box of personal belongings. She simply laughed and walked away. I'm guessing I wasn't the only person she asked.
22. Give More, Get More
I have found that the more I give without expecting something in return (compensation, reciprocity, etc), the more successful I become. Business is about making money, but to make money, people need to know you and trust you and that can be best built by giving.
23. Gut Brain Is Good
Listen to your gut brain, even when you think you should not. Listening is not acting, but being aware of what your intuitive or gut brain is telling you. Your years of experience have value along with your talents. For often enough, when given enough information, your gut brain is usually validated.
24. Strength in Vulnerability
Allowing yourself to be vulnerable in business can help you grow exponentially. A publishing company I owned once had a cash flow crunch and needed to reprint a book. We wrote to our best bulk clients, told them of the dilemma, included a copy of the printer's purchase order for 2000 books at $2,950 and offered them the opportunity to buy bulk orders of 100 or more for $2.95/book. They spread the word, we got new clients, they admired our honesty and our business expanded greatly!
25. Business is Just Like Dating
The most unexpected lesson I learned in business, one not really taught in school, is that business is 100% like dating. Regardless of your talent or how ideal the client may seem, it all comes down to basic chemistry. I didn't learn this from any single person, but from a series of experiences. You just "click" with some people. The good news is that you can put this to work for you - if you know the chemistry is there (and don't force it), the relationship can last a long, long time!
26. Whatever it Takes!
From a very early age, my father told me that when dealing with CUSTOMERS, do "Whatever it takes!" Once you have gained the confidence of a client and they are relying on you to service their needs, this motto can go a long way in being a test as to "what should I do in this situation?" Clients, those who treat us reasonably, provide us with income and trust us to take care of their needs, deserve no less. There is still loyalty to brands and companies; you just have to earn it.
27. It's OK to Say No
It's a lesson that many business owners have to learn the hard way, but sometimes, the best thing you can do for your business is say no. If someone wants you to do something that falls outside of your specialty or takes you away from focusing on the business you are trying to build, it's ok to say no. It's also ok to say no to difficult clients who make being a business owner no fun. It's not all about the money.
28. It's the Small Things
I treat every media outlet, no matter how big or small, the same. I am grateful for it all and you never know the effect something might have. A reporter for a smaller New Jersey paper called asking why they should use our release. Though I was now living in California, I mentioned that I was actually from Jersey. So they ran it. The VP of a professional sports franchise read it that weekend, which led to transforming the company overnight, as the national media and multiple teams came calling!
29. Help is Everywhere!
It turns out that the best people in business are the most generous in their time and desire to help. All you have to do is ask.
30. What's Your Toilet?
After conducting customer research for the restaurant/bar, we found that the critical factor for our customers was the quality of our bathrooms. Further discussions with customers revealed the role of females in determining the length of stay (and therefore, spending). With this 'insight' we were able to make a number of changes to increase revenue. The takeaway: be careful about your assumptions about what is important to your customers! For us, it wasn't the food, drink or service, but our toilets.
31. Sally Field Put it Best
Years ago, I attended a meeting of NY Women in Communications. The speaker was a heavy hitter in the magazine business--who had been let go that day and was probably more outspoken than she might otherwise have been. Her advice to the audience: Go where they like your style. Following her counsel has made my career, and my life, easier and better. Over time, I've added to it: And stay where you like their style!
32. Experience Has its Limits
I was on a construction site. An elderly carpenter was installing a door frame. The engineer was criticizing the way the he was anchoring it.
The elderly experienced carpenter was defensive & said; "Young man, I've been doing this for 40 years. Do not tell me how to do it." The young engineer replied "Well, for 40 years, you’ve been doing it wrong."
The young engineer was right.
Lesson: Doing something for a long time over & over doesn't automatically mean you've been doing it right.
33. Pay Attention to the Money
I learned early on the importance of managing receivables. All businesses run on cash. Sometimes, you have to chase after that cash. Send invoices right away. Follow up at 30 days. Don't be bashful. It's your money; you earned it.
I learned this one on my own after getting into a cash crunch or two my first year in business.
34. Hire the Best and Step Aside!
Hire the most amazing people and then step aside and let them do their job--their way! Micro-managing employees does not work. People love to feel valued, trusted, and respected. They love the freedom to tackle a task their way.
35. Learning to Say "NO"
One lesson I've learned recently is having to tell my clients "no".
This situation arose when several of my clients felt that they could ring me at any time and get instant consultation at no cost.
When I told one client I could not continue with support calls unless I charged them, they were outraged.
I had to say "NO more free support!"
It's a fine line between good customer service and getting ripped off by your clients...
36. Promise a Lot; Give More
We owned a small peach orchard during my early teens. We often sold the peaches to customers in a nearby town. I filled several baskets with the most beautiful peaches on the bottom and very nice ones on the top. Customers were always delighted when I dumped the basket into their carry-away container. "I have never seen anyone put the most desirable peaches on the bottom," they exclaimed. "But when I put them in your container," I said, "the most beautiful ones are on the top." The word spread.
Mitch Carnell of SPWC
37. Be Ready for the Non-Support
Working with small business owners and running three businesses from home with my husband, we've learned: not everyone will jump to support you. In fact, most of the people in your immediate circle will not support you (not at first, anyway). When I began my businesses, some friends dropped me (for fear I'd be coming their way for sales, etc), many ignored me, some of them *pretended* to care, but only a select few actually offered to help or listen. You'll quickly know your true pals.
38. You Have to Break Rules
(Your own rules, that is). On the journey of growing our business, we've learned that it's not all about being right. Sometimes, it makes more sense to go against your own contract or terms to please the customer. Even if the customer is in the wrong, the company is going to spend more time trying to explain policies to the customer than it takes to honor the customer's request. In the end, doing whatever it takes to leave the customer satisfied is the most important thing and it does pay off.
39. Bah Humbug to Christmas!
One unusual business lesson came from my mother who has her own business. She told me not to send Christmas cards, but instead, send Valentines. In my first year of business, I sent out a Valentine postcard with a quick personal note for each of my "A" clients. Guess what? I had messages and emails back from folks; one person even cried in her voicemail because she hadn't gotten a Valentine in years.
The point? CARE about people and send something out during other holidays--you'll stand out!
40. "Hero" or "Enemy"?
Have you ever left a firm after a successful run, where you had been a top performer and were praised all of the time, and then you decide to move on? Worse yet, you move on to another firm within the same industry? I have learned that the table at which you have been seated is turned around and now you become the "enemy", no longer the beloved performer.
What I have learned is that you need to move on gracefully, with character intact and do not look back. You know who you are; nobody can take that from you.
41. Best Lesson Learned
The most unexpected lesson I've learned is that the more things you have in the pipeline and the more visible you are, the more important things come through. I didn't learn it from anybody, but discovered it through experience.
42. Jockeys Rule!
I had an online translation firm. We landed a half a million in funding 10 years ago. The money man, who became Chairman of the Board, told me on turning over the cash, "I don't fund the horse, I fund the jockey."
Dennis Smith of BDev+
43. Learned Lessons
The lesson I learned was an important one for businesses. I learned that positive employer/employee relations are conducive to fostering quality customer service, although a company can do well in spite of itself. Humiliating an employee in public or bullying him or her can have negative consequences in more ways than one. Coach and counsel those who need it, but never humiliate or bully them. Attitude comes from the top and trickles down level by level.
44. No Value Proposition
As a small businessman, author, speaker and former fortune 500 consultant and former stockbroker, I can tell you that the most unexpected lesson I have learned over the years is that most professionals really do not add value at all. My experience is that if you have to tell and sell me on your value proposition, you probably don't provide much in the way of value in the first place!
45. Capability vs. Relationships
The most surprising and disappointing thing that I learned in working in industry is that more people got promoted because of relationships than for performance and capability. I have had many bosses who did not have the horse power for the job, but got their position because of either relationships or physical proximity. The lack of objectivity and scrutiny in promoting people is a major cause for so very many businesses that are struggling.
46. What is "Fair Share?"
The most satisfying lesson that I learned in business was to always advocate the right thing to do, even though it has never been done before, even though it would be hard to do, and even though it's opposed by everyone else. Stick to ethical principles. I have scored some "firsts" in my industry that way, one being the first oil and gas field in which allowables are based on reserves.
Thanks to: Seldon Graham.
47. Unbelievable Story of Sharing
When we started our business, someone I met at a networking event did an unbelievable thing. His name is Glen Schaff and he worked for a big time training company. After we got to know each other a bit, he came to my office and GAVE me a list of potential clients. We were basically competitors. He included contact names and numbers, and said I could use his name. I was shocked, and he said...there's enough business for all of us. Wow! Would I have done the same thing? Great lesson.
48. Following My Intuition
My business life is magical when I follow my intuition. One day, I decided to attend a free seminar. I could have sat anywhere in the room yet, I selected the second row. A women sitting behind me mentioned to another participant that she wanted to expand her magazine with a pet section. I turned around to introduce myself. The following month, she was my radio show guest and in December 2011, I'll be featured in her magazine.
49. Sales Volume Cures All Ills
As a young restaurant manager, I attended an all day meeting with other managers on ways to better control cost. When the day finished, the Senior VP who had been with Lawry’s for 30 years made this statement to give us perspective- While cost control is important, the ultimate way to control cost is to keep your sales volume high by satisfying your customers. This lesson had such a profound impact on me that I later changed my career focus from operations management to sales and marketing.
50. Passion Does Not Equal Profits
Many people make the grave mistake of choosing to start a business because they love the product/service as a customer. Do you have the skills to run this business? Will it create the future exit options you will want? Will the hours/schedule jive with your family's needed schedule? These factors and more are much more important in your success and happiness with owning your business than your personal love affair with what your business sells.
Leslie Kuban of FranNet
51. The Spirit's Role in Success
Over the course of my executive career, I began to see how, in highly aligned and congruent organizations, the execution of the strategic plan began to create a momentum all its own. When only 50 to 60% of the plan was implemented, we would already be tracking better than 90% to plan. What I realized was a collective consciousness was emerging. The source of our individual creativity, resiliency, and passion, the human spirit, coalesces into a driving force greater than the sum of its parts.
52. Back Up and Re-Access
What I've learned in business is to have a plan B when plan A fails. I learned this lesson fairly quickly when working for a client as their publicist. The lesson is to not put "all of your eggs in one basket." In the perfect world, I believed that vendors, contacts, etc. will have my requests and agreements "etched in stone." However, sometimes unexpected situations happen out of your control and theirs. Therefore, to avoid a panic and stressful situation, always have a back-up plan.
Thanks to: Faithe Rogers.
53. Whose Hobbies Make More $$?
Interviews with 100s of rich biz owners taught me an unexpected lesson. THE RICHEST have 2 or 3 HI-PROFIT hobbies! (I can take a hint. I've turned my reading hobby into $$.) DARPA discovered that the human brain is hard-wired to accept stories above all else. So, I turn ideas into stories.
54. Marketers Do Marketing
The lesson that I learned in business is that, no matter how good the science or the device, the product still needs marketing expertise.
As a physician, I invented the Hydro Pulse Nasal/Sinus Irrigator to clear sinus infections without drugs. I wrote a dozen peer review articles.
Despite awards and enthusiastic reviews, it lacked marketing skill and persons who could have avoided sinus surgery didn’t know about it, although doctors did use it for themselves and their families.
55. Anyone Can be Wealthy...ANYONE
The most enlightening lesson that I learned was from a book called, "The Science of Getting Rich" by Wallace Wattles. I learned that everyone has the right and ability to be wealthy, no matter their upbringing, education, location, etc. It's thinking in a certain way that makes it so. It's scientifically proven, so don't deny yourself the opportunity! Do what you love, believe you are deserving and BE WEALTHY!
56. Break Your Neck?
Breaking your neck is not a requirement for waking up to the truth about success. When I was a quadriplegic, I could no longer use the conditioning that got me to the NHL. I was forced to use my mind and my words. The words we use at the table and the feelings we bring to the table have a direct impact on whether your company/idea grows or dies. The principles and exercises I share with my audience work to develop the mind and create an awareness about leadership that very few have discovered.
57. Five Business Safety Lessons
1. Never assume anything; verify everything.
2. Investigate and don't speculate on important decisions.
3. Always ask and seek what is truth, no matter where it leads.
4. Know that truth is exact and permanent; if the truth is modified, it is no longer the truth, but a lie and if you can find a lie, it will often lead you to the truth.
5. Avoid "Titanic Thinking," i.e., don't believe that you or your organization is unsinkable; don't ignore the warning signs and always count the cost before you act.
58. You are ALWAYS...
No matter what you do publicly for your business, you are always marketing.
Be it meetings, public appearances, for sale signs, blog posts, or community functions, as a business owner you are always, always marketing your business. Your business is a brand and your daily activities and functions contribute to the building of your overall
brand. So, whether you are a marketing expert or not, you will be into marketing (your business).
59. There is an ROI to Saying "No"
The most unexpected lesson I've learned is how many business owners and VC investors don't realize that saying "no" to an investment can yield positive returns.
On three separate occasions, I had clients make investments after I did due diligence that showed the deal would cost them their investment. In all three cases, that's exactly what happened. Had they not done so, that cash would have earned returns from the bonds in which they were originally invested - a positive ROI for saying no.
60. Bartering is NOT Easy!
You'd think that helping someone out as they help you would be a breeze- not so! When you barter $ for $ for something you want, you're now their boss, PLUS you’re doing the service work that they're paying you for. What happens when they don't do a good job? What happens when you need to fire them? What happens when you realize that you made a mistake in "hiring" them? Bad feelings, guilt, and the rest come out big time. Be aware. Interview them just like you're hiring them for cash.
61. Imperfect Action Wins
It was about two years ago now that one of my coaches shared the concept that imperfect action trumps perfect inaction every time. This is the greatest (and yes, most unexpected) lesson I've learned. It freed me from spinning my wheels waiting for perfection and let me get out there and work with the clients that need me now. And I've been sharing (and modeling) imperfection each and every day since...and I'm proud of all that I've accomplished. You can't beat that!
62. Real Estate Squirrel
I have learned in dealing with Real Estate that you always need a Capital Reserves Account. I have had a squirrel eat through the siding on the eave of the property's attic because that was where he had his nest the year before.
63. The Deal That Sold Itself
My most memorable sale was made...by the client himself! To himself! On my behalf! His name was Darius Irani, an executive with a manufacturing giant on the West Coast. Upon completion of the training program that I was hired to do, I packed up and prepared to exit the building. He stopped me and chastised me for not asking about other opportunities. I never forgot the lesson: future contracts are embedded in present deliveries of service.
64. Wisdom of the Ages
This spring, I led guest service training at a large Navy hotel complex; everyone from managers to groundskeepers attended. Lots of interaction & discussion was required. After a session concentrated on identifying & solving guest issues yourself, without a supervisor, a mature employee approached. She said "I've worked here for more than 35 years; at 87 I am embarrassed to admit that a lot of these people are a lot smarter than I ever gave them credit for!" Lesson: Learn something new every day.
Do you have an unexpected business lesson that wasn’t included? If you do, please share it below. And as always, many thanks to everyone that contributed to this article!