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“Write down the names of the people you think will help you, then put the list away. Now go to work! In 5 years look back at the list – you will be surprised – your help will have come from people you met along the way, not the names on the list.” – Curt Rogers, Rogers-American, Charlotte from a 1980 phone call.

I still remember every detail of that phone conversation with Curt Rogers from 35 year ago; even the names I wrote down after hanging up.

Curt ran the largest food brokerage company in the Southeast – representing the biggest and best food manufacturers to the retail grocery trade. It was more than nice that he returned my call, but what I really wanted was for him to offer me some of the companies too small for his large firm to represent. He didn’t. I would have to find those on my own – and it was better that way. But he did give me four key words I still use today.

“Now go to work!” was his simple advice and that is exactly what I did. True to his prediction, over the years I found it was not the people on the list who helped, but all of the people I met – while out doing the work. They were the ones interested in helping me shape my vision.

At the start, I thought I knew how the future would turn out. After all, I did what the textbooks said to do – make a business plan, draft pro-forma statements – step by step. But the books failed to say what Curt said, “Now go to work!”

I was trying to be like Curt and sell to the large retail grocery chains, but I was too small. I soon found my emerging niche – selling to the distributors who were springing up to supply the away-from-home food businesses: the restaurants, hotels, hospitals, schools, and more. A niche that was not in my business plan and one I would have never found without the help of new friends.

What “then go to work!” didn’t mean – for sure – was sitting in my office. The work was out in the kitchens of my Customers. They needed to learn about the products I was selling – to smell and taste the food, experiment with preparation and menu ideas. This was old-school – belly to belly – selling, not board room negotiations where everyone is polite, saying one thing but meaning another.

Over my career, there would be times I would get discouraged. If I looked at my Day Timer and saw that I had been in my office for several days in a row, I immediately knew the cause of my discouragement. I would tell myself, “Get out and stay out.” Those words became my mantra.

It worked, I met hundreds of people who would have never been on the list otherwise.

Any idea of controlling the business from behind a desk was 100% wrong. I needed to be out with my Customers.
Any idea of controlling the business from behind a desk was 100% wrong. I needed to be out with my Customers.

Years later, when I saw salespeople in the office too much, I would ask, “Don’t you have Customers who need to see you?” If they said, “Yes” then I just said, “good – when? – soon?” But if they said, “No” then there was a much longer conversation needed – in private.

Success for me became a continually shifting kaleidoscope. To identify the next pattern I needed to be looking forward into what tomorrow would bring – not looking back at yesterday. Being with Customers gave me a glimpse of how the kaleidoscope’s colored bits of glass were being rearranged. A day in the office wore me out, mentally and physically, but a day with Customers sparked new energy.

Curt Rogers was right. You can think about who will help you find success – but “Then go to work!” You might just be surprised.

Have you found complete strangers more willing to help your new venture than old friends? Why is that?

Do you know why I capitalize Customers in my writing (and speech)? Answer: “Customer” is a proper noun in my rule book, along with Clients!

As always, the conversation starts here.

“In the ordinary choices of every day we begin to change the direction of our lives.” – Eknath Easwaran

Epilogue

Are all Customers just alike? Not really …