What I Learned From My Dad About Business: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
My dad is a CPA and by time I was in junior high school, he was running his own practice. I never thought of him as an entrepreneur until I started my own business. It was then I realized that he and I are the only two people in our family (on both sides, and stretched across aunts and uncles and all) who has ever taken the plunge into self-employment.
My dad isn’t perfect, but he ran a business well enough to support a family of seven. My mom, a labor and delivery nurse and later a nurse midwife, worked because she loved what she did, and not because she had to. My dad made plenty of money to keep us all on soccer teams and in music lessons and to fund frequent family outings to the movies and miniature golf.
Now that I am adult (and his self-employed offspring), I see more clearly than ever some of the lessons I learned just by watching him run his own show. In some ways he was a model for what to do, and in other way a model for what NOT to do.
- He put the client first. He treated his clients well. He got the work done even if it meant going in early, staying late, and skipping lunch. If a client needed something or a tax deadline was approaching, he sacrificed his own comfort to meet their needs.
- He treated his employee well. He only had one: a receptionist named Claudia. He made sure she got her vacations and her lunch breaks. He spoke to her with respect. When he could, he did little extras to show he appreciated her. He gave her very fair—in fact, generous—raises. When I went into the office and did data entry, he paid me more than I probably deserved, but convinced me I took a lot of tedious work off his plate. (To be fair, I was hella fast at 10-key.)
- He kept a very clean, welcoming office. Sometimes on Saturdays we helped clean, but it didn’t take long. The carpets were vacuumed every week, blinds and furniture dusted, plants watered and healthy. A jar of m&ms graced every desk, within easy reach of the client (and tagalong kids).
- He nurtured strategic relationships. There were names that floated through the air when the adults were talking about who he’d taken to lunch or played a round of golf with. He maintained relationships with people he referred to and got referrals from.
- He exercised self-discipline. I remember complaining to him once about the long hours I was working at my part-time job in college and how I often didn’t get to take my break until my shift was almost over. He said, “Someday you’ll work 10 or 12 hours in a row without eating lunch and you won’t even realize it until the day is over.” I didn’t believe him then. I know it from experience now.
- He drew upon the best parts of himself to build a successful business. A man prone to being short-tempered and impatient, he dug deep to be positive and professional and easy to work with. In fact, some of my best memories as a teenager and young adult were when I worked in his office during busy seasons. I got to see how he treated his business relationships—VERY well.
- He allowed a few clients to become responsible for most of his income. As far as I am concerned, that’s like having a couple of bosses, and that’s not self-employment. In fact, he ended up closing his practice and going to work for one of them after several years. And eventually, that employee-employer relationship that had begun as an expert-client relationship soured, and he was back in the job seeking pool.
- He didn’t grow. He never hired an enrolled agent, data entry clerks, bookkeepers, or other CPAs. He did all the work, and when you do all the work, there is a limit to how much money you can make—especially when people pay you per hour or per project (in his case, per tax return).
- He didn’t love what he did. I had heard the story a few times about how he was good at math and he had a wife and child and accounting was a responsible and potentially lucrative path. I had also heard about how he had hoped to be a pro bowler. The bottom line is that he wasn’t in love with accounting, and he never changed his business or his offerings so he COULD fall in love with what he did—which may be why, at least partly, he ended up working for a handful of clients and then becoming one of their employees.
- He left it all on the field. His best moods were reserved for professional interactions, which is one of the reasons I loved working for him, and while he always paid me very well, I would have gladly worked for free in many cases just to spend such conflict-free time with him. I asked him a few times over the years why he couldn’t be as nice at home as he was at work and he said, “Because these people pay our bills.”
I include item #10 not to make my father look bad, but as a teaching tool for you men who also “leave it all on the field.” It truly doesn’t matter how much money you make or even what you do with it if your most important relationships suffer. Nice vacations and a beautiful house and lots of “things” will be forgotten if you don’t connect with your loved ones. It’s true that we often treat strangers better than we treat our families. Are you treating your clients or employees better than you’re treating the people you care about the most? If so, there is no better time than the present to make some changes.
Who set the examples that you are now following as a professional? It’s important to figure out who those people were so you don’t unwittingly emulate the bad and the ugly just because some behaviors were preached or modeled for you. Take some time to consider who taught you what to do and what not to do—and may your business be good and create good in your life.