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What can an old Greek man teach a young entrepreneur? Ask Jim

Guest Blogger | December 21, 2015

I know an entrepreneur named Jim. Jim runs a gas station in Scarborough. In fact, he’s been a fixture of the local landscape in what used to be called the “Gateway to Toronto,” a unique stretch of Kingston Road that is dotted with  cheap motels, donut shops, tattoo parlours and block after block of strip malls.

A pit stop at Jim’s for a full-service fill-up is pretty much a daily routine for hundreds of his faithful customers on their drive downtown. From my third-generation Canadian perspective, what Jim has accomplished in his life since coming to Canada as a teenager from a tiny Greek village with $20 in his pocket is inspirational.

We often look to the latest start-up success story in high-tech or bio-science as the gold standard of entrepreneurialism. Not me. I look to Jim. Not because I’m old-fashioned, and not because I’m out of touch with economic reality. With due regard to the wonders of the new economy, I always look to Jim for lessons because his approach is timeless. Every time I visit, I learn something valuable about what it takes to make an enterprise work.

As Jim likes to say: “There’s nothing new under the sun; everything’s been here since time began. It’s just a matter of finding a new way to deliver a product or service that people need.”

Preach, Jim.

With all the credit going to my main man Jim, here are a few pointers that can shape your entrepreneurial vision.

First be a master of your trade, then go all in
Jim paid his dues long before he considered opening up his own shop, mastering a few aspects of his trade along the way. Jim will never be dependent on other people because he knows virtually every facet of his work. While not everyone can be a master of their domain, it sure helps when it comes to running your own business.

To use an example on the importance of expertise: people forget that the Beatles had put in about 10,000 hours of work before anyone knew they existed. They were masters of their craft first, and then they auditioned for a record deal (not the other way around).

People are your promise: treat people like people, not numbers
No matter how resourceful, creative, and shrewd you are with your business, you will always be wise to acknowledge the vital importance of your surrounding team. Simply put: go to the wall for your customers and your employees and they will go to the wall for you.

The only thing different about the guy who is up early is that he’s up early and you’re not
Jim doesn’t relish crawling out of bed every day at 5am—but he does it. And the only reason he does it is because it gives him a head start on the operations of his business. By the time his first customer hits the lot, Jim has already filled a supply order, caught up on paperwork, and performed some routine maintenance on the garage. Making the best use of his time is par for the course for Jim. Eventually, it’s become a habit, not a chore.

The little people are Jim
It doesn’t matter whether you are the toast of the town or a virtual nobody, people deserve the time of day. Jim knows that the guy cleaning your toilets today can be the guy running the utilities company tomorrow. Every customer is equal to Jim and deserves to be treated with respect. Jim is naturally a curious guy and he gets to know his customers, their families, their struggles, and their joys. This is not a skill that can be “taught.” You either are interested in people or you aren’t. Be like Jim and see the little people as yourself, because they are.

Business, then family, then country
Jim will probably kill me for writing this, but he sacrificed a lot of his personal time so that his business would flourish. I’m not sure his kids really knew him until they were into their teens because he was never home for dinner. Holidays? Jim took a one-month vacation in 1986, closing his shop down, and he swears it almost destroyed his business. He never took another one. It’s the harsh reality of an entrepreneur—you throw everything you have into your business. We talk a big game about work-life balance, but it’s often elusive for an entrepreneur. Be prepared to suffer for your passion early on and to have your family upset that you didn’t make the Easter egg hunt.

Perseverance is not optional
If Jim had given up at the first sign of a business deal gone sour, he wouldn’t have succeeded. He got shafted by an associate. It was messy, but not fatal. Jim knows how to dust himself off after a setback and get right back to it. It takes ingenuity, imagination, and frankly, sheer will, but that’s what is necessary to cut out your place in the world of business. If you want it badly enough, you just might get it.

If you find yourself driving through Cliffside Village in Toronto and your tank is low, stop into Jim’s Repair Centre and look for the man with the strong hands and kind eyes. That’s Jim. He’s my go-to inspiration for all things entrepreneurial. And the gas is a bit cheaper, too!

Full disclosure: Jim is my father-in-law.

Written By: Brett Hughes, Business Writer, CFIB

About Brett:
Brett Hughes is a business writer for CFIB, a non-profit organization dedicated to serving Canada’s small business community. To learn about CFIB’s free membership program for first-time entrepreneurs, visit MyStartUp.ca. To read more My StartUp advice provided by Brett and other entrepreneurial-minded individuals, visit the My StartUp blog.