The most important business lesson I’ve ever learned was from a guy named Jake.
The story is worth telling, because it illustrates the hearts and souls of real businesspeople. Jake was a friend but also a taxpaying businessboy. We were both seniors in high school.
I worked as a stock boy at a convenience store. Jake owned, managed and blue-collar-labored Jake’s Lawn Service. He started small, using his family’s mower to serve a few neighbors and then more neighbors as he grew on from kiddom to teenager.
Jake’s entrepreneurship enabled him to buy an old Ford F-150 pickup, which he used to expand his range and add more lucrative lawns to his business profile. By the time Jake was a high school junior, his business investments included the pickup, his own push mower, a commercial walk-behind mower with a wider deck, a trailer and two trimmers, because one or the other was always waiting for him to repair it.
He bought a second walk-behind mower and hired me and other friends to run it. Jake paid me a couple bucks more per hour than I was making at the convenience store. Still, I looked at him sideways, because the pay wasn’t enough. “Hey,” I told Jake, who I could talk to more as a friend than as a boss. “I’m working just as hard as you are, and you are paying yourself a heckuva lot more than you are paying me.”
Jake wasn’t extravagant, but there were signs he had more disposable income than my friends and I had. We knew it, because he was never complaining about not having enough money or asking his parents for cash.
“Tell ya what, Ed-man,” Jake said. “You can do what I do. Once you buy the equipment, pay the insurance and pay the business taxes, you can earn as much as you want, really.” I responded, “Yeah, I should do that. I mean, I already own a vehicle and have a lawnmower I can use. It’s all about starting small and building on it.”
Jake responded, “For sure. Seriously. All I do is drive to neighborhoods and put Jake’s Lawn Service fliers on house doors. Enough people hire me to have their lawns mowed and cleaned up in the fall. But a lot of it is people stopping me while I’m working and asking me to do their lawns. I have enough lawns to make it worthwhile. You could do the same thing. I’d help you with whatever you needed. We wouldn’t be competing, because there are thousands of lawns out there.”
He was sincere with that.
I thought about how easy it would be to own my own lawn business and be my own boss. After all, I didn’t have any real-life expenses to worry about. I could do this thing and not have to punch a time clock. The only hurdles would be eventually paying insurance and business taxes, and those could easily be built into the prices I was charging customers. Other factors and variables would be super manageable.
I set that thought aside while I was sleeping in until 10 a.m. and connecting with buddies to go to the beach and drive around pretty much all summer. Jake, who was great at time management, joined us a lot of the time, well, when he wasn’t burdened with getting up at 7 a.m. to mow lawns, staying up late to fix weed whips and change oil, and finding hours to do his bookwork and billing.
I remember he had an actual Jake’s Lawn Service bank account, complete with checkbook, and he was always cash-flowing expenses like gasoline to run the equipment and parts to keep it operable. Whenever he bought a bottle of pop, he would pay for that separately with cash. His business system looked super organized and easy. I think he even took out a bank loan or two, not that he would have had to, because his wallet seemed plenty fat.
Yes, Jake was reaping rewards, which were very visible at the time – the F-150, downhill skis, rock-climbing equipment. Looking back, I’d have to guess those rewards were balanced against sacrifice, risk and special stresses for which only bona fide businesspeople could know and empathize. Real businesspeople don’t punch out at 4:59 p.m., or prohibit themselves from working Saturdays, or give into any temptation to take Groundhog’s Day off. Their “paychecks” depend upon them actually creating, selling and producing (being productive). They built what they built on ambition, grit, patience and persistence. Their priorities reflect it. All that is mostly invisible to the public.
I see a lot of “Jake” in the businesspeople of St. Peter. They know their traits like only other businesspeople can. They’re cut from the same cloth. You can spot them if you’ve ever worked side by side with one, like Jake, who said a heckuva lot more with actions than words.