Believe it or not, some of the most powerful business lessons I learned were from working at a store that could barely keep its lights on. It was a small, independent bookstore in my hometown that, sadly, doesn’t exist anymore — but it was a true jewel when it did.
I was only a junior in high school and was just happy to have a job, let alone one that would give me free books. (I was kind of a nerd.) Even though that bookstore wasn’t a huge success story, my bosses were doing a lot of things right. Little did I know at the time, this experience would teach me some valuable business lessons I would carry with me into my career as an entrepreneur.
Make It Personal
I suppose the owners of a bookstore would know better than anyone that we often do judge books by their covers. Presentation matters. The store had amazing displays that were organized by staff member reading recommendations. While many stores group items according to employee picks, this shop took great care to make the displays eye-catching and unique. This was clearly valued by customers, who would often ask to speak to the different “recommenders” personally.
In my business today, which specializes in preparing high school students for college, we often think about the best ways to give insight into who we are, not just as a company but also as individuals. Every instructor is featured on our website and in our materials with a standard bio, as well as a set of “fun facts” to highlight their personalities and interests. On our website, we also feature our admin team so that clients can attach faces to the names they so often hear over the phone.
Know Your Product
I remember the owners had never hired a high school student before (in fact, nearly every one of my colleagues was over the age of 60), but that never seemed to matter. All they cared about were my literary tastes. It was important to the store’s owners that every employee genuinely loved reading. Today I realize why: Your employees are your brand.
Our team members have a very diverse range of interests and talents (from cuisine to comedy to coding), but one thing that unites everyone in our office is a genuine love of learning. To this end, we invite guest speakers and offer enrichment programming for our staff. When we launch a new update to our software, we create videos to educate our employees about how to use it. It might not be totally necessary, but it helps generate enthusiasm — and that is an essential trait for every member of our team.
Pick the Right Real Estate
Strangely enough, my experience working at the bookstore taught me something about real estate. The store was not on a main street. Parking was limited, and the storefront was hardly anything to take notice of, but readers — real readers — made an effort to seek it out and would return again and again. To understand why, you need to know that when you walked through the front door the store felt welcoming, cozy and inviting.
Today, I remember this when considering locations to scale our business. Does street appeal matter? It does to a certain extent, but in our business, finding a bright, open space that is close to students’ after-school activities is more important. And perhaps what is most essential is the vibe we’re cultivating once customers walk through the door. To that end, we always have a candle lit, snacks prepared and a phone charger in the waiting area for those hectic moments. Not every business needs to attract foot traffic, but once customers get there, it should feel like they’re at home.
I miss that bookstore, but the lessons I learned there — when I dreamed of becoming a novelist and didn’t quite realize I wanted to go into business myself — are still inside me. Above all, my high school job made me a champion of independent businesses and the entrepreneurial spirit. And that is something that no book can teach you.
Lindsay Tanne is co-founder and COO of LogicPrep, an education company that helps families navigate the college admissions landscape.