My husband, Will Spencer, started JKS Incorporated in 1983. The name comes from his father’s initials, John Kerr Spencer. Will was 23 years old at the time, and he started the business not even knowing what it was going to be. “I rented a building with no idea what I was going to do, but I knew I was going to do something. And here we are 34 years later.”
If you’re looking for someone who literally started a business from scratch and built it into a big success, Will is your guy. So, I thought I’d pick his brain and try to find out just what lessons he could offer to others who might be thinking about starting a business or even already running one. I interviewed him, and here’s what I found out.
1. You have to be prepared to work hard.
“After high school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I took a gap year. I’m still on it. I learned by doing, and that was the best education I could have gotten.”
Will got his first job when he was 13½, as a bag boy at a grocery store. Over the next decade, he worked doing construction, running a machine in a knitting plant, on a Christmas tree lot, at a service station, and at an auto dealership. He says that working at different jobs and in different situations taught him to relate to people and prepared him to run his own business.
2. You have to be committed.
“Don’t start anything that you don’t plan to finish.”
Will says he learned that very important lesson from his father, and it’s stuck with him all his life. Running a business takes a lot of time and energy, and if you’re not ready to give it your all and stick with it, don’t start it in the first place.
3. Be prepared to be in charge and take responsibility.
“If you have a building full of crew chiefs, you’ll never get anything done.”
Yes, when things are going well, you get to enjoy it. But if there are problems, it’s up to you to solve them. Sometimes that means making tough decisions and firing people who aren’t doing their job. Being in charge also means taking care of the people who work for you. The biggest headache about running your own business, Will says, is “being the bank and running a daycare.” But that’s part of the deal, and you need to realize that before you start a business.
4. When you’re starting out it’s important to look for opportunities, and never say no.
“I love for somebody to give us a project that’s impossible to deliver on, and then see it go out the door when we’ve done it.”
Will says that, in a way, his business started by accident. He had bought some screen printing equipment from a bankrupt company. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do with it and he didn’t know how to run it, but he saw buying it as an opportunity. Then he was approached by someone who knew he had the equipment and needed a big screen printing job done. Again, Will saw an opportunity, so he said yes. He found an employee of the company that used to own the equipment who did know how to operate it, hired the man, and got the job done. That taught him that when an opportunity presents itself, you find a way to take advantage of it, because it may not come around again.
5. Be prepared to change with the times.
“We reinvent ourselves every seven years. We recreate ourselves for three, work hard for four, then do it all again.”
You need to keep up with what’s happening in the world, and especially in technology. If you don’t, you’ll fall behind the competition. You also have to constantly re-examine your business to see what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong, and then “right your wrongs,” as Will puts it.
6. Don’t overextend yourself.
“Bigger is not necessarily better.”
Yes, you want your business to grow, but you don’t want it to grow so fast that the quality of your work suffers, you miss deadlines, and you start to lose customers. We’re proud to say that we’ve never lost a client because of dissatisfaction, and we never intend to.
7. Be honest.
“Do what’s right for the customer.”
No explanation necessary, I hope.