05/24/2012 09:41 am ET

Small Business Tips From My Father

I’ve met some of the most renowned entrepreneurs and business experts of our day. Some were disappointing in person, while others lived up to their reputation. But I realized some of the best business lessons I’ve learned were from watching (and sometimes working with) my father in the store he owned for nearly two decades.

I grew up in a family of small-business owners. Both my grandfathers, my two uncles and my dad all operated their own businesses. Most were retail (one uncle had his own accounting practice). One of my grandfathers was well-known in his little corner of Brooklyn, first for his candy store, and later for the liquor store he owned with my uncle.

In the mid-1950s, my dad opened a men’s clothing store with his father in Bayside, Queens, a borough of New York City. It was a time when people shopped in their neighborhoods. Malls didn’t yet exist and shoppers only schlepped into "the city" for special purchases.

Obviously social media didn’t yet exist. But this was the time the precepts of customer relationships were formed. There wasn’t a need to talk to your customers over Facebook and Twitter -- there was plenty of time to catch up when they were in the store.

My dad knew his best customers. He knew when they were struggling and let them pay their bills over time (credit cards were not yet widely in use). He knew when someone was headed off to college and started putting “appropriate” clothes away ahead of time. He knew who was color blind and needed extra attention matching their shirts and ties. He know who was a pain -- in fact, when one of those folks walked in the store, whoever spotted them first (my dad, Grandpa, brother, or one of the part-time college kids who worked there) would yell out “BB,” meaning a "ball-busting" customer had entered the store. Forewarned is forearmed after all.

My father passed last week, after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. Among other (perhaps more important) things, he taught me a lot about the right and wrong ways to run a small business -- timeless lessons that any entrepreneur can learn from.

1. Get your family involved.

From the moment one of us kids was old enough to unfold a box, we were put to work at Christmas and the Saturday before Father’s Day. It’s never too early to show your kids what your business is really about -- and why you work so hard.

2. Waste not, want not.

For most of the time my dad ran his store, New York state had “blue laws,” prohibiting retail businesses from being open on Sunday. And flea markets (swap meets) started becoming popular. My dad took his excess inventory, lowered the prices and headed to the flea market on Sundays, essentially creating a “second store,” and building brand awareness.

3. Do what you want, not what people expect of you.

By the 1970s, the malls had decimated many neighborhood stores. My dad wasn’t interested in moving his store to the mall (too many hours, too much trouble), and closed up shop. This is a case, perhaps, of learning from his mistakes, since he ended up working for and managing a store in the mall. Doing the work, but not reaping all the awards. Another lesson from this: Don’t be afraid of the unknown.

4. Hire kids in the neighborhood -- and treat them well.

My dad always hired a local high school or college kid to work part time in the store. This led to their friends coming in and shopping there and somewhat increasing the “cool” factor. Hiring kids might not be the answer for you, but remember when your employees live in the neighborhood, their neighbors are your customers. So if you’re a bad boss, that fact will spread, and likely cost you customers -- and revenue.

5. Treat your customers as if they’re your neighbors -- no matter where they live.

Get to know your customers as individuals. Make an attempt to find out what’s going on in their lives and use that to help you better serve them. These days, unlike my father, you have the benefit of being able to do it both online and offline.