10 Uncommon Truths Every Business Owner Should Know

IN: Business 101

I’m not sure if you’ve ever served ice cream for a living, but there’s one thing you should know: It’s terrifying.

From little league ball teams showing up twenty seconds before close (always a great time), to people who NEVER SPECIFY WHAT SIZE THEY WANT EVEN THOUGH THE PRICE IS DIRECTLY CORRELATED TO THE SIZE AND “A VANILLA” IS NOT SPECIFIC AT ALL AND NOW I HAVE TO ASK YOU WHAT SIZE YOU WANT EVEN THOUGH YOU SHOULD HAVE ALREADY MENTIONED IT, the life of an ice cream scooper is every synonym for “annoying” you can think of.

That’s probably why I liked it so much.

You probably don’t know about me and my secret life as an ice cream scooper–even though it’s not a secret and I was far more than just a scooper. I was manager.

That’s right. Top dog. Head honcho. Chief. Big enchilada, there at my hometown ice cream stand. In fact, Tammy, the owner, would always introduce me to other people like: “This is Ash. She’s part of the woodwork around here.”

Part of the woodwork. And really, I guess I was. I started working there when I was fourteen, for five smackaroos an hour, and stopped working there once I graduated college–8 years later. In other words, you do not want me to serve you a chocolate milkshake, because every other chocolate milkshake you drink for the rest of your life will never, ever compare. See? That’s what the ice cream industry does to you: It makes you cocky about things no one should ever be cocky about. For example, how many times have you bragged about your flawless ability to dip a large soft serve cone into a tray of rainbow sprinkles? That’s right–NEVER. Which sort of makes me smile in a nah nah nah nah nah kind of way, because you haven’t lived until you’ve battled it out with a tupperware full of multicolored sugar.

By which, of course, is my half-assed way of making a very large, vague, roundabout metaphor, because what I really mean to say has nothing to do with rainbow sprinkles, but rather, that running an ice cream shop for eight years TEACHES YOU THINGS.

Namely that no one tips ice cream girls ever so stop holding your breath, but other things, too.

And wouldn’t you know? It was just the other day when I found myself reminiscing (what size would you like? what size would you like?–pound pound pound) and thinking about just how valuable that near-decade experience running that first business was–even if it was just ice cream. Because a small business is a small business is a small business, and any time you’re trying to convince someone to give you money–or, you know, upsell ’em on the nuts (that’s what he said?), there are certain things that are good, and there are certain things that are bad–no matter how you slice it. And from those certain things? Spring certain truths. And from those certain truths? Springs more money, more satisfaction and way more,” Oh I’ve SO got the hang of this now–get the BLEEEEEEEP out of my way.” It’s like the fountain of youth, except none of us are getting any younger so we might as well become richer. I mean…

The Ten Truths Every Business Owner Should Know: As Told Through Ice Cream

1. Customers don’t mind complications–but only if they genuinely think you’re doing your best.

There’s nothing worse than the girl behind the counter blowing bubbles and twirling her hair with acid-laced apathy, while a line forms three blocks down the street. And that girl? Is the equivalent of the business owner who doesn’t make their customer service a priority, and maintains an attitude that they’re the ones doing their customers a favor. Newsflash: Those people standing in line are doing you a favor.

2. No matter how justified you feel in asking your customers to “pay up,” nickel and diming them will put you right out of business.

I’ll never forget the time that well-intentioned Tammy wanted us to start charging 5 cents to anyone who came back to the window and asked for an extra cup. This happened a lot–especially with kids–since they’d order their ice cream in a cone, and then five minutes later, would have it dripping down their hand. Naturally, it was an extra cost to Tammy, adding up to be far more than five cents, which frustrated her. But one thing a business owner needs to always remember, is that there’s a cost to doing business. And it’s up to you to realize when that cost? Will help contribute to your profit–not take away from it. The people who had to scrounge for a nickel when they needed a cup inevitably left with a bad taste in their mouth–and that five cents we made in the moment might have cost us $50 dollars they would have spent with us later that summer, had they not gone to our competitor who gave cups with a smile. (Credit card fees are another example of this–if you’re charging your customers extra to use their credit cards, you need a stern talking to.)

3. Speaking of smiles, they’re your greatest business asset.

Smile when answering the phone. Smile when flipping their hamburger. Smile when charging them money. Smile when they’re grumpy. And smile when you’re doing something you wish you weren’t. That shit rubs off–I swear. And your customer will leave feeling like they had a uniquely positive experience–even if the rest was nothing out of the ordinary.

4. People don’t buy ice cream. They buy the experience of eating ice cream.

So even though you and the other five ice cream stands in town might all be supplied by Perry’s, you’re not all the same, because you might have the same flavors, but you’re each providing a different experience. (Hopefully.) Though the atmosphere, the customer service, the aesthetics, and right down to what color napkin you wrap around the cone. The winner of that battle will be the one who remembers that–and then goes out of his way to capitalize upon it.

5. Following up on that thought, the better experience you provide, the more you can charge.

Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t all about your offering. It’s about the way you offer it. And the way you offer it? Creates value. People will pay for a better, more satisfying experience. They will. Just ask Target.

6. Figuring out exactly what that better, more satisfying experience looks like in your business?

Is your number one priority.

7. The customer may not always be right, but guess what? They don’t have to be.

Do what it takes to build good will–even when you want to give ’em a good piece of your mind. It’ll pay off later. Even if it’s just in the currency of your conscience.

8. Don’t pay attention to what people want. Pay attention to what people buy.

Because people don’t know what the hell they want–and I think we can all testify to that. Sure, if I ask you if you’d buy marshmallow bacon ice cream, you might tell me, “Yes, I’d try it–how exotic!” to be a generally pleasing person and get me out of your face. But will you actually buy marshmallow bacon ice cream?

9. Always have a signature. And always flaunt it.

In business, and in life. Because people who have a signature service, style, drink—or, hey—a signature ice cream cone…get remembered. Those without a signature? Well, let’s just say if you can’t attach your name to something, why would anyone else want to?

10. You have two choices: Sell a lot of cheap ice cream to a lot of people who will never be back, or sell a little bit of better ice cream to less people who will come again and again and again.

You’ll still make the same amount of profit, but guess what? One is less stressful than the other. Guess which.

And while business isn’t always easy, nor easy to figure out, one thing’s for sure: These lessons will all be learned one way or another, because eventually, you’ll learn them through trial by fire. And that’s the other big takeaway from this post: Trial by fire. 

Trial by fire is, hands down, the best way you can ever learn anything. Not only is it far more efficient, there’s also something to be said about the confidence it brings you, because you discover that you really can handle anything–even when you didn’t think you could.

My first night at the ice cream stand, when I was fourteen, was a Saturday night, and we got slammed. I was forced to figure it out and just roll with the punches, dripping strawberry syrup everywhere. Similarly, it was the same way I navigated my first job out of college, doing PR at FOX TV, and my second job out of college, doing marketing at a small company in Philadelphia. Later, it was the way I figured out how to start my first copywriting business, and after that, it was the way I figured out how to sell big advertising contracts to big companies. Much later down the road, in 2009, it was the way I figured out how to blog, and today? It’s the way I continue to navigate my way through every challenge, every new situation, every idea, and every single new piece of growth we’re experiencing with my current company, House of Moxie.

Trial by fire is, in fact, ideal.

Think of the aspiring salsa dancer who only reads about salsa dancing—and never trips over her own two feet. Think of the aspiring Italian language learner who only reads about Italian–and never utters a sound. And then think of the aspiring business owner who only reads about business–and never actually does any.

Trial by fire is exactly what we should all be striving for, because trial by fire is the only way you’re going to really learn what it takes, in order to take yourself to the next level.

No matter who you are or what you do–even if you’re just an ice cream scooper in a small town in Pennsylvania–the things you need to learn are everywhere, no matter which way you turn. The only caveat?

Is that you actually turn. 

Stagnancy is suicide.