On Presidents' Day, we honor our nation’s presidents, but we typically don’t look to them for business help and advice (unless it’s extending more government loans or incentives). But, there is actually a lot we can learn from two of our most well-known leaders.
As small business owners, we are especially familiar with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln since they appear on our money. And here are four lessons business owners can learn from these two presidents:
1. Solve customers’ problems. Washington was a marijuana farmer. In the late 1700s, pot was actually grown for hemp and soil stabilization (at least, this is what Washington told everyone). Hemp was used for textiles, paper, and medicine. In fact, the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper. Washington also ran many other businesses including a large fishery and one of the biggest whiskey distilleries in the country. Lincoln owned a general store. In the 1830s, these stores were the only places that offered a wide variety of goods for farms and homes. Stores would also offer the farmers credit based on how good the next year’s crop was projected to be. (Note: Do not follow this last piece of advice since Lincoln went out of business.)
2. Be an innovator. Washington introduced the mule to America for farming. Utilizing mules gave farmers many advantages over horses including the ability to work the animals harder, longer, and with less feed. They were particularly popular in the south since their hooves were better suited for crops like cotton, tobacco and sugar. Lincoln was also an innovator. He received patent No. 6469 for a device called “Buoying Vessels Over Shoals" on May 22, 1849. It was supposed to lift riverboats off of sandbars. He whittled the original device out of wood. Unfortunately, the product was never marketed because the extra weight on the boat actually increased the chances of it running aground. Lincoln was more innovative as a lawyer and politician. He created the first transcontinental railroad and established a national currency.
3. Failure is part of the journey. In Washington’s first battle, he was ambushed and forced to surrender at Fort Necessity in Pennsylvania. In 1755, Washington had to assume command from a dying General Edward Braddock. He led the surviving Colonial soldiers on a “successful retreat." Washington always talked about how "99 percent of failures come from people who make excuses." Lincoln lost the first time he ran for state legislature and U.S. Congress; he won the second time around for each. He lost both times when he ran for U.S. Senate, but was later elected president.
4. Learn from the bottom up. Washington’s father died when he was 11 and left no money or formal education. So Washington became an apprentice in order to learn business. Lincoln also had no formal legal education. He learned from books until the Supreme Court of Illinois licensed him. When he became a lawyer, he traveled around Illinois to learn his craft until he became one of the most successful lawyers in the state.
What other presidents can we learn from?