When I turned 40, I looked at my life and felt immense gratitude. My businesses were doing well, and I was prospering despite the fact that I had not graduated from college. Yet, at this moment in my life, I felt I had learned so much that I had a graduate degree from the school of hard knocks. To celebrate my “graduation,” I had a jeweler make a class ring. This ring would not have the motto of an academic institution on it, but it would have the tenants of my own business success. Along the sides of this ring, I inscribed 24 letters, each representing important guiding words.
On one side of my ring, I had inscribed AOPN for the phrase “Answering Other People’s Needs.” When I ask this question, “How will my business most effectively answer other people’s needs?” it helps me hone my business strategy on not only what customers want but, what they will pay for.
This strategy was introduced to me by my parents who owned and operated a small truck stop near Waldo, FL. They not only had the basic foods that our local customers loved but they also prepared foods that out of state travelers would like and weren’t available anywhere else in town. Mother made a wonderful strawberry shortcake by placing a small piece of cake in a bowl, followed by three large scoops of vanilla ice cream and topped with strawberries; making it quite a dish! We also served a pastrami and a corned beef sandwich on rye bread which was a favorite of northerners traveling down Hwy 301.
Another way my parents answered the needs of customers was at the gas pumps. When a customer pulled up, not only did we do the usual of pumping the gas for them, but we checked the oil and water levels in their vehicle AND washed not only their front windshield but also their back window AND their headlights! We also asked if they would like for us to check the air pressure in their tires. ALL of these extras were free of charge. Our gas prices were a penny or two more per gallon than other gas stations in the area, but the extraordinary service kept customers coming back for more.
When I was in the 7th grade, I had my first business experience in AOPN. At that time, my school didn’t sell candy bars. So this young entrepreneur bought candy bars from my parents truck stop and sold them to students. Because there was a high demand for candy bars and I was the only one supplying them, this was a very successful enterprise. Unfortunately, the school administration shut me down - giving me my first taste of government intervention in business. (And that’s a book for another time!)
Answering Other People’s Needs was my mantra as I entered into the business world when I was in my early 20’s. When I founded the Albany Auto Auction in Albany, GA, I immediately answered the needs of car dealers by just having the Auction on Tuesdays. Yet, after listening to some of my dealer customers, I found out they needed a nighttime auction in addition to the daytime auction I was already holding. So, I added a Thursday night one and immediately it was a huge success! In fact, before very long, the Thursday night auction was making about twice the sales as the Tuesday day sale! In Answering Other People’s Needs, I not only helped them, but I helped myself into more income and profits.
One of the most interesting lessons in AOPN came from the flea market business. About 40 years ago, I was introduced to the idea of building and operating a flea market. Upon closely looking into the concept and visiting other markets in the state, I determined that it indeed had merit and thought it would work in Waldo as well. So, I acquired the land outside of Waldo that used to be the location of my parents truck stop and built a market. The market was doing well, but I wanted to spend more time on the weekends with my young children rather than running a flea market, so I sold out my interest and then focused on real estate development and my auction business.
After a few years passed I began to see the need more and more for a flea market/central marketplace, due to the increase in government regulations for opening up a stand-alone business. Flea markets were, in my opinion, a way of answering the needs of “moms and pops” who wanted to be in business but didn’t have or want to spend the necessary capital to build a freestanding building and also deal with government bureaucracy. It also helped them with the high cost of marketing because they were selling their goods and services at a marketplace where thousands shopped on a consistent basis. So, in 1984, I built Smiley’s Flea Market between Asheville and Hendersonville, NC.
When I built Smiley’s, I built it in a manner that I envisioned would answer the customer’s needs. But, it didn’t take very long for me to learn that MY plan wasn’t working out as I had hoped. I had forgotten a key concept in Answering Other People’s Needs - asking them what they need!!
So, I asked. And in accordance with their responses, I made adjustments to the operations as well as to the structures. As the business began to improve, I was grateful I’d learned the lesson that giving people with I think they need is not Answering Other People’s Needs.
Today, some 30 years after opening the market in North Carolina, Smiley’s has grown significantly at both of our locations in Fletcher, North Carolina, and Smiley’s Flea Market at Macon, GA. Both market locations have an open-air market, a huge yard sale as well as numerous lock-up shops. In total, both now have over 1,000 selling spaces and have some half a million shoppers a year at each location….all because we Answer Other People’s Needs.
The business concept of Answering Other People’s Needs makes business win for everyone. My customers win because they get exactly what they want. My vendors win because they make money. And I win. But I don’t just win financially when I Answer Other People’s Needs. I also win spiritually. In answering their needs, I have helped them enjoy life to the fullest, and I live with the knowledge that my business has helped them have a happier and more successful life.