My Grandmother (Lena) was a tough Italian woman of immigrant parents. She was smart, classy, and a bit outspoken. A woman who stood tall without making others feel little and she had a way of making you feel like you were the only one in the room when she talked to you. She was one of my best friends and mentors until she passed at the age of 81. Here is a small excerpt of her remarkable life and successful business.
At the age of 30 (1951) Lena quit her job at the hospital to start her own business out of the back room of her house. How courageous she was during a time when women were not encouraged to even work let alone own a business. My grandmother built and ran a very successful dog grooming business for almost 40 years.
She never ran an ad, attended a networking event and of course, didn’t have social media or a website. However, she turned down business all the time because she was booked solid. Her business was built on good old fashion values and word of mouth. Everyone knew her by name in the grocery store, the bank, and the farmers market- and she knew theirs. In my twenties, as small business owner myself, I often asked her for advice and it was always GOOD-SOLID advice. Much of which is timeless,still very relevant, and advice that served me well.
Here is some of the best advice I received from her.
- Keep costs low, but don’t be cheap. She could have had a fancy shop in town but chose to use the back room of her house- for 40 years. She drove cars until they died and was a frequent shopper of the discount stores. When it came to her family, decent work equipment, or donating to a charity- she spared no expense.
- Accommodate your customers. I can remember her telling me about her clients schedules, likes and dislikes without looking at a CRM or a notebook. Her saying was “I work for them, they don’t work for me!”
- Deliver with excellence. She never did a shoddy job on a client’s dog because she was in a hurry or having a bad day. She always gave it her all even when she was in the midst of battling cancer.
- Keep moving forward. She worked for three years after being diagnosed with bone cancer. Not because she needed the money, because she loved her job and her customers. She used to say keep moving forward even when the challenges are great. When it was time to stop, she had no regrets and she did it gracefully- passing her clients on to a respected competitor.
- Don’t be a fool. Learn to discern who was trying to BS you or take advantage of you, call it out (politely) and then part ways. My grandmother would call you out in a minute if she thought you were trying to pull one over on her. I inherited this trait honestly.
- Maintain a healthy cash reserve. To her, cash was king. Her strategy was to put so much aside every month and then put it into some kind of vehicle for a return. Her advice was don’t lock it down so tight that you can’t access it easily if you need it. She could cash in at any time with little to no penalty-fast. Glad I listened!
- Take time off. She traveled, belonged to a bridge club, and volunteered. I never recall her talking about a 60 hour work week nor did I ever hear my dad say “my mom worked a lot when we were kids.” Unfortunately, I hear that a lot now from people.
- Represent Properly. I will quote her “I’m gonna dye my hair and put my lipstick on as long as I can lift my arms.” She was a firm believer in representing yourself properly, no matter how discouraged or tired you are. I am guilty of running into Walmart many times in jogging pants and a bun, but not her, ever.
I still refer back to those tidbits of advice everyday. Her advice seems to never go out of style and ironically enough, she never took a business course. She seemed to instinctively know plain old common sense.
As a little girl, I was in awe of her. I noticed at a very young age that she was different than the other grandmas I saw. As a young girl, I never thought “wow, a woman business owner,” I always thought she was exceptional, but not the exception. As a result, I never saw myself handicapped because I am female, I never had a thought that I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. I always figured if you’re awesome enough, the doors open.