This is a presentation from Allan Branch. Allan is the co-founder of Less Accounting. He shares his story and the family businesses that influenced him along the way.
After reading this excerpt, you’ll want to high five Allan. It’s incredible advice. Check out his site Massalina Drive and follow along with the presentation at these two links: part one and part two.
##5 Things My Parents Taught Me About Business
My parents never sat down and said, “Allan, these are tips you need to know one day. You’re going to start a Internet company. And it’s going to be really a lot of work.”
They never said that.
I’ve observed things. And it’s taken me 30 years to see how these things that we’ve done naturally, my business partner and I - it’s come naturally because I’ve observed things the way my parents have done them.
It just seems natural to me. So these are some tips they’ve shown me, not through business lessons, they’ve shown me these things every day.
They’ve consistently showed me these messages. And here’s what I’ve learned.
The first one is be extraordinary. This isn’t an inspirational talk. And that sounds really fucking cheesy.
But my parents wanted me to do something that I loved. And cared about and was passionate about.
Growing up as a home schooler, my mom constantly still tries to show us things and teach us things. And we hated it.
We’d say, “stop teaching us things. You’re driving me crazy, Mom. Gosh, you’re ruining my life. Uhh! I’m going to my room.”
But she wanted us to be extraordinary. And I hope we came close.
The first lesson is work your ass off. My parents never said, “it’s ok, you don’t have to work as hard as the other guy.”
My parents made us work harder than everyone else. Every Saturday while you were playing Nintendo, my family was working at our family business.
Malcom Gladwell has a great book called Outliers. And in his book Outliers, he says to be world class in anything you need 10,000 hours of practice.
That doesn’t mean you can’t be gifted initially. But to be world class in something, you need to put 10,000 hours in.
And I think I’ve done that. I’m there in business now. Kind of understanding what business is about now just at age 30.
But my parents always told us, “you’re going to have to work harder than everyone else. When everyone else is out playing, you’re going to have to work hard.”
And nothing in life comes easy. Business is a struggle. I watched my dad struggle every week to make payroll.
Washing cars was not a glorious business by any means.
Part of being extraordinary is if people think you’re doing something crazy, you’re probably on the right path.
Because most people are morons. Most people are morons. They sell insurance - they do this, they do that. They look forward to being 65 when they can actually take a day off and forget about work.
They’re not going to get you spending nights and weeks working on a project that may or may not ever make a dime.
So what you’re doing, to them - you’re crazy. You are crazy.
But I knew I was doing something right, when my mother in-law said, “you should keep your job. You don’t need to go freelance.”
I said, “I’m probably doing the right thing.”
I realize crazy things. Not crazy as in idiotic. But crazy as in ballsy. Ballsy things get talked about. Ballsy things change the status quo.
My grandfather, when he opened his restaurant in 1943 there was nothing like it. He opened it in Panama City, FL. 3,000 people in this little town. And it’s still there today.
65 years later - it’s still there. People still come in. He has pictures of himself still on the wall, his employees, and other restaurants that he’s owned.
It’s still there. It’s still there because he focused on having a good product. A product that was different than everyone else. And he focused on having a niche market.
The car washes - there wasn’t even a car wash industry in 1953. This was uncharted territory. He went into a new category business. Bankers didn’t give loans for car washes. There was only about 20 car washes in all the US.
So he didn’t go out and build a laundry mat. There is nothing wrong with laundry mats. But he went out a built a car wash.
There was probably a car wash - three or four in the southeast. One in Miami, one in Atlanta, and probably Nashville. But this is Panama City, FL. He put one here and it’s still here today.
The next thing is you don’t have customers. You have friends.
You do have customers. But I want people to stop using the term customers and users. Because it dehumanizes the people that you’re serving.
My grandfather, every ad he ever put out, “howdy friend.” Put his picture on it. His name. It was more like he was talking to a friend.
We need to have more friends. You need to treat your customers like they’re your friend.
How would you want your best friend treated coming into your application by your support team, by your developer - how would you want them treated?
How would you explain your app to them. How would you allow them to understand what your app does? Treat them like friends.
Kevin Hale, from wufoo.com, has a great quote. “I just imagine every tech support request is coming from a beautiful girl.”
He actually says Halle Berry. And it changes my tone.
Imagine the people sending you emails for feature requests and bug reports is Halle Berry or your best friend, maybe Halle Berry is your best friend, you will change your tone and you will give them more respect.
They will feel the love.
There is no such thing as customer loyalty. Your customers will not be loyal. Friends are loyal.
Seth Godin had a great blog post the other day that said, “loyalty is when people know there are other choices, better choices, and they stick with you.”
They don’t even look for other choices. They stick with you because they love you and they love your brand. And they love everything you’re doing and they want to support you.
My grandfather showed me this and we’ve copied this - this is my business partner, Steve. He is the smartest man in the world. We give out stickers that say we’re your new best friends.
We send out emails that say, “hey friend.” We want to be your friend. We don’t have fans. We don’t have followers. We have friends.
So that’s been really helpful for us.
We talk to our users. When you login to Less Accounting it says, “You’re back, we love you. No seriously, you’re awesome.”
Now that could be just, “login form, please fill everything out that’s required.”
That’s robot talk. Talk to these people like they’re your friends.
Let’s go to personal branding - it just makes me want to vomit. We’re now in a time where people are coining phrases, terms, or terminology for things that have been going on for hundreds of years.
Gary Vaynerchuk and Chris Brogan, and all the social media people did not invent personal branding.
It’s been around for hundreds and hundreds of years. It’s just when your customers know who you are and trust the product you built them.
Think about the early 1800s or 1900s, when you go to Smith’s General Store. And Mr. Smith is behind the counter and he says, “you should try this lip balm.”
And you know Mr. Smith’s recommendation is the best. That’s a brand.
People have been doing personal branding forever. Hershey’s. JC Penney. People used to name their business after themselves as a part of being branding. So you would trust the Disney brand, the JC Penney brand, which was a huge catalog that had lots and lots of products in it, so you had to trust the products they had it in were really good. They had an R&D laboratory setup to test these products. So you knew if JC Penney put his stuff in that catalog - it was the best stuff.
Firestone. Kellog’s. You saw a lot more apostrophe “s’s”. I’m not going out there and saying you need to name your web app, “Eddy’s web app.”
But that’s a way people put their name and face on their product. And it worked. It worked well for hundreds of years.
They kept copying these people until it got so big their face or their name of the company no longer represented the person.
The Kellog’s guy died off. And you don’t think of the face of the man of Kellog’s anymore. You think of the little chicken or rooster or whatever it is.
So these companies got really big and they got faceless and nameless. And we thought well that’s what we should do as business owners in the 1950s and 1960s.
Your brand is how your customers explain you.
My grandfather, if you look at his ads, he talks about how he’s helping working class families. He wanted to help working class families feed their families and keep their cars clean.
Which reminds me of Grasshopper Group. It’s the parent company of Grasshopper.com, which is the phone system, and also Chargify, which helps you do reoccurring billing. They’re not Grasshopper Group - we build apps. It’s we empower entrepreneurs with the tools that we provide.
That’s the story that they’re selling. That’s the brand that they’re selling.
Build a brand. But how the fuck do you build a brand? No one tells you how to build a brand.
Well it takes years and years and years. Every day doing the right things and being good. Your brand is your aftermath of all of your actions that you do.
It’s how you talk to people. It’s how you dress. And it’s how your app works. It’s how you resolve issues.
Another great thing Kevin Hale says, “the relationship between your users and you is a marriage.”
All marriages have problems. But it’s how you resolve these problems that makes a marriage.
And what makes a relationship is how you resolve quarrels and tiffs with your friends or with your wife or husband or however.
Your brand comes from years and years of doing the same thing. It’s not your fucking logo. It’s not your logo.
My grandfather did all these things. He put his name on things. He said thank you. The businesses had much more life. They had birthdays.
Most of his ads had a little paragraph or little letter from him. That was how he built his brand. He built his brand on good prices. And a story.
If you look at the very bottom of this ad, just above Jimmys’, it says see the world’s most unusual juke organ. Now, I don’t know what a juke organ is - but it sounds fucking fantastic.
I’d love to see one.
Another one of his brands was world’s biggest hamburger. We have big food. It’s cheap prices. We’re good people. It’s very clean.
I read back to one of his car hop manuals. The car hop is the person who goes and takes your order and runs back inside.
It said change your hat every two days. They used to wear little hats.
Your customer is not going to notice your pants. But they’re going to notice that hat. Because they are going to try to look at you in the eye.
They are going to know if there is stains or sweat. So they’re going to notice your hat. Change your hat.
The neat and clean stuff, the price, was all part of the brand he built.
He was able to identify value. And he did it quickly.
If you can’t identify value quickly, you’re going to go out of business.
My dad took over the car washes in the late ’70s before I was born.
If you go into Starbucks or any coffee shop and you’ve been a few times, and the barista says, “hey whatever your name is - that venti caramel latte with the extra puff of foam.”
That’s how you like it. When they remember your drink, you’re like, “holy shit, this is awesome.”
You feel really good. It makes you feel really good.
My dad realized this in the ’80s and he would basically pay his employees to remember the names of his customers.
So here’s a picture of a couple employees who had the highest name count with a couple trophies. It was a big deal. I think the winner at one point had 130 names, tag numbers, and make/model of cars remembered.
It made the customer feel really good. He was able to identify that value.
In the late ’80s he kept this naming system. He had a high school kid in BASIC build a database to store customer names, tag numbers, make/models, notes, mailing address, birthdays - all that kind of stuff.
So now you could pull in and they would greet you and say, “hey Mr. Smith I know you came in a couple weeks ago and asked for this specific wash. And asked to make sure the cup holders were clean. But would you like to add hot wax?”
So knowing they’re going to take care of you and make sure the little things that you wanted done would get done built a lot of loyalty.
It gave them a lot of emotional value to feel safe and secure.
Now that is a car wash standard. That’s why my dad is really well known in the car wash business.
My dad goes to car wash conventions and meetings. He’s like the Tim O’Reilly of car wash conventions. People take their pictures with him and it’s funny. And really it’s amazing.
Another thing about car washes. When you’re watching your car being washed, the foam is going everywhere - it’s blue and it’s green. It’s foamy. It smells like pine. And there’s bubbles or soap or strawberries.
The chemicals don’t make the bubbles. That’s actually an additive they add to make the customer feel really, really good.
It might not have anything to do with it, but it makes the customer feel really good.
So at Less Accounting, I added a little welcome mat to the app. It says, “hey your account is created, welcome to bookkeeping in the clouds, let’s get started buddy.”
It makes people feel really good. It’s the simplest little thing and it make them feel so good. It’s how we identify value.
I’m talking about welcome mats, foam, people using your name - all these values. You obviously need to have a good product, but all these values come from one thing.
It’s emotional value. It’s being able to identify what makes your customer feel good.
Now if you screw up the product and you have a welcome mat, but your app doesn’t work, then it really doesn’t fucking matter.
But if you’re able to deliver a good product, then identify emotional values of how the customer can feel better. And how they want to feel. You’re going to have a more successful product and business.
I’m going to tell you how to stay in business. It’s by not spending money. It’s taken me 30 years to realize this. It’s a simple point. Why do businesses go out of business?
Is it because they have a really ugly logo? No, it’s not.
Is it because there website is really ugly? No, it’s not.
Is it because they have really stupid marketing? No, it’s not that either.
It’s because they’ve spent more money than they’re making. And they’re running out of money.
When you run out of money, your business is over.
So I’m going to go even as far as predicting how your business is going to go out of business.
You, if you’re a business owner, you’re weeks away or months away from going out of business, losing your house, losing your cars, and living with your fucking mom.
If the money stops today, what are you going to do?
It’s all about how much cash you have saved. You might have a great product. And you might say, “Allan you’re talking to somebody else, I’ve got a great product.”
Here’s a few things that has happened to my family over the last few years that has created cash flow issues.
City regulations that’s added extra expenses into the car wash business. Out of their control.
My brother contracted Lime disease three years ago. They have health insurance, but they also owed $300,000 in medical bills.
BP Oil spill. I’m in Panama City, FL. You should come down here and see what it has done to the economy. These people might have great businesses down here, but because the oil spill they were shit out of luck.
These outside cashflow issues can come from somewhere else.
You can deliver a fantastic product and it may never happen to you. But I can guarantee you that all the other tips people are going to tell you - you may have another speaker come in here and contradict what I’m saying.
But no one that’s been in business longer than a few years, we’ll ever tell you that you should have less cash.
You should have less cash. You should spend more money. No. People that go out of business spend money on things they think are important. And they’re not.
The things that you think are important probably are not as important as you think.
I’m going to predict how you’re going to go out of business. You’re going to open a consultancy or a web app and it’s going to do well. You’re going to do well.
You’re going to be working for a few years and you’re going to get some more notoriety, and it’s going to be good. You’re going to say I’m working a lot of hours. I deserve a bump, a little bit of a raise, if you will.
You’re going to feel good. Money is a great temporary justification of doing something you don’t really want to do. So you’re going to give yourself a little bit of a raise.
You’re going to hire someone. You’re going to get a bigger office, a nicer car. Because you want your friends to realize how well you’re doing.
I certainly want my friends to realize how well I’m doing.
You’re going to have a time - it might be five years from now, 10 years, or even two years. There’s going to be a cash flow hiccup. You’re going to get sued. You’re going to get sick.
Something is going to happen where you have a cash flow issue. And it’s going to be how well you prepared yourself.
Save money. Both personally and in the business. You need to have three months personal and three months business to last you in case something happens.
Or this will allow you not to take projects on that you don’t want to take if you’re doing consultancy.
You might be young. You might be old. You might have kids. I don’t know. But I have two kids and I’ve got a wife. We’ve been married awhile. Seven years.
I can tell you I love business and I love design, but I can tell that our work is not nearly as important as this [family]. As soon as you realize business and work is a tool to allow you to do other things - the happier you will become.
And the less dependent, the things that we get so upset about can wait until tomorrow. You can take the afternoon off. Play with your kids.
I even catch myself playing with my kids and thinking about business and it’s terrible. I have to tell myself now is kid time and you have to be there for your kids.
My parents, my dad missed so many hours growing up. He missed soccer games and baseball games. But he set an expectation of I would rather be there watching you, but I have to earn a living so we can have a house over your head. So your brothers and sisters can buy books. And I’m going to be there every time I can. But there is going to be times where I have to compromise.
And I never resented him. He set a great expectation for me. And I hope I create a great expectation for my wife and family.
My grandfather passed away in 1963. So I never met my grandfather. My dad was 10 years old when he died. So I might have learned a lot more, who knows, if he would of been around.
What’s kind of cool and what makes me more proud of family is thinking about how grandfather did all these things 65 years ago and how they’ve affected me know.
He passed away in ‘63 in a car wreck. He set up his business where he had lists, he had 10 restaurants and two car washes at the time, he had these lists of all the things he needed to do.
Tuesdays, Jimmy’s on Harrison Avenue gets these things. You’re going to need to have these things. The car wash needs to have these chemicals on these dates. Pay people on these dates.
Here’s how much a roof cost me to build. He had these ledgers of information that my grandmother used to run the businesses forever.
So another tip might be to find someone to replace you. Or make your job automated. He certainly did that.
My grandmother lived off his work for 25 years and sent my dad to college. All these things my cousins have done because of my grandfather.
That’s a legacy.
It’s cheesy, but maybe I should challenge you to build your legacy and go out and do things that your grandkids will take about.
He’s affected me. I’m more proud of my family than I am myself. The way my dad treated customers and diffused situations. He has employees that have worked for him for 25 years.
You walk through the hall ways of his car wash and see pictures of employees and remodels. People would quit and then come back. He built a day care for his employees.
It’s just amazing to watch him do things. A lot of these don’t relate to the Internet and what we’re doing. But certainly it was a unique way to grow up and a unique way to look at business.
Thank you, Allan. And thanks to Benjamin Alijagić for hosting the videos.