It’s always good to remember that, if you go back far enough, every big business started small.
Phil Knight sold shoes out of the back of his car when he started what would become Nike. Sam Walton worked behind the counter as a management trainee at someone else’s department store before he started his own. And Ray Kroc was a traveling salesman who occasionally picked up gigs playing the piano before he stumbled upon an idea for a restaurant that would serve decent food quickly.
None of them started out with a pile of money — except if you count the debts they owed to the banks. But they persevered because they each believed that their small businesses could grow big one day.
Got the same feeling about your business? Take a deep dive into the back story of each of these titans of American business by reading their inspiring autobiographies.
Shoe Dog by Phil Knight
The story of Nike stretches back to 1964 (more than 56 years ago). In his autobiography, the company co-founder and chairman emeritus, Phil Knight, spins a tale of humble beginnings where he turned his dream of selling high quality track shoes to athletes into a $35 billion behemoth. Along the way, Knight dealt with lots of issues that will be familiar to small business owners — particularly retailers. Knight constantly owed money to the banks during his growth phase. It’s one of the recurring challenges for him as he borrows more and more to buy more and more inventory and then borrows again to buy even more inventory. He’s always fighting to stay one step ahead of the bankers who are always threatening to cut off his access to capital. It was only when the company went public in 1980 that Knight could finally lay his debts to rest.
Sam Walton: Made In America
Speaking of building up huge debts before going public, Sam Walton grew Walmart into a mini-empire with 38 stores and $44 million in annual sales but he also owed money to almost every bank in Arkansas and southern Missouri before deciding in 1970 that a public stock offering was the only way to continue the company’s upward trajectory.
But, before he reached that stage, Walton became a student of retail and developed an intimate knowledge of almost every aspect of the business. One thing that may not be widely known is that Walton had a keen interest in technology and he moved Walmart stores away from analog cash registers to computerized point-of-sale systems in the early 1980s because he wanted a faster and more accurate check out experience for customers.
Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s by Ray Kroc
Ray Kroc was in his early 50s when he happened upon a restaurant in San Bernadino, California run by two brothers, Richard and Maurice McDonald. The two brothers had purchased eight of the milkshake mixers that Kroc was selling at the time. Because it was so unusual for one restaurant to purchase that many mixers, Kroc decided to pay the brothers a visit and see how they were using the machines. Kroc, who was said to have seen more than 1,000 restaurant kitchens prior to visiting McDonalds, believed that the brothers had the best run operation he’d ever come across. He convinced them to start franchising the business and, well, the rest is history. Kroc later purchased the entire operation from the McDonald brothers but not without some controversy over who was owed what (for more on that, you can watch ‘The Founder’ on your favorite streaming service).
In the book, Kroc recounts his early childhood and upbringing in Oak Park, just outside Chicago. He also provides plenty of advice and admonishment to would-be entrepreneurs who want to follow in his footsteps. How to summarize his message? It’s right there in the title of his book. He was obsessed with food quality, processes and customer service — three things every restaurant owner should be obsessed with.
Want to know how a modern point of sale system can greatly improve your small business? Contact us today to learn more.