Pick up a book about Warren Buffett and it will most likely include a chapter or at least a passage on the significance of Rose Gorelick Blumkin. But who was Mrs. B? Was she the 99-year-old woman whom Buffett had to impose a noncompete agreement on when he purchased her business? Or was she the illiterate woman who was inducted into the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame alongside Buffett? Or was she the 4 foot 10 inch immigrant with the business story that Buffet described as “unparalleled”? Mrs. B was certainly all these things, but perhaps more importantly, her story sheds some light on three common qualities possessed by successful entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurship is closely related to invention, yet the road to invention is paved with discontent. Innovators and business visionaries experience their surroundings with an acute dissatisfaction with the status quo and a strong desire to improve things. Although not an “inventor” in the way we may understand it today, from a young age, Mrs. B refused complacency and dreamt of a better life.
Mrs. B. was born in 1893 in a small village near Minsk in czarist Russia. She and her seven brothers and sisters slept on straw in a single room home. From the age of 6 she helped her mother in a small grocery store. She also lived through constant persecution from the Cossacks against the Jews yet learnt from her mother that begging was undignified. Her parents couldn’t afford school and thus she never saw the inside of a classroom. Instead, at 13 she walked into a dry goods store and convinced the owner to hire her. By 16 she was running the store supervising five married men. Nevertheless, she remained unfulfilled and focused on her dream of escaping to America and succeeding in business. She married Isodore Blumkin in 1914 who soon after left to America and she was unable to accompany him. In 1917 when Europe was in crisis she took her chance and boarded the trans-Siberian railroad. At the Chinese frontier a Russian guard stopped her and she convinced him to let her pass by saying that she was buying leather for the army and upon her return she would give him a bottle of vodka. She made it through Manchuria to Japan and six weeks later landed in Seattle aboard a small transpacific boat.
Tip: Don’t get comfortable. Instead of accepting every aspect of your life as a given, question things and be curious as to whether there is another way.
Although many entrepreneurs have an idea, dream or vision, most won’t have the persistence and toughness to push on in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Mrs. B had the strength of character that made her willing to fail.
In 1919, after having reconnected with her husband they settled in Omaha with her parents and siblings under the same roof. To support their meager existence Mrs. B sold furniture out of their basement and her husband ran a pawnshop on the main floor. In 1937, at the age of 44 Mrs. B managed to save $500 to rent a store front and dubbed it Nebraska Furniture Mart. Her motto was to “sell cheap and tell the truth.” Local brand name manufacturers considered her low prices bad for business and thus refused to supply her. Yet Mrs. B pushed on and traversed the nation buying large retailers’ excess merchandise for a hair above cost and bootlegged it back to Nebraska to sell in her store. Banks refused to extend credit and laughed at her in light of her illiteracy and lack of experience but this only fueled her fire and pushed her to work 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year without a day off. One carpet manufacturer went so far as to bring her to court alleging that her low prices violated fair trade laws. Yet these were simply speed bumps on her journey towards becoming the largest furniture store in the country.
Tip: Once you have your idea, dream or vision be relentless in its pursuit. All successful entrepreneurs have been able to overcome the odds so why can’t you?
Most successful entrepreneurs are able to recognize their strengths and use them to develop a mission. Once they embark on this mission their focus doesn’t waver. In Mrs. B’s case, Buffet described this phenomenon as “native genius” or the ability to stay focused on one’s area of expertise. We can’t be good at everything and those who are able to identify their strengths and focus on them stand the best chance of success.
One question Buffet always asked himself when evaluating a business is how comfortable he would feel having to compete against it, assuming that he had ample capital, personnel, experience in the same industry etc. When it came to Mrs. B’s business he felt that he would rather “wrestle with grizzlies” than compete. She was good at what she did and her business was strong because her formula was irresistibly simple and executed to perfection. She bought in volume, kept expenses at the minimum and passed on the savings, typically selling at only 10 percent above her costs. This strategy worked in the beginning and it stayed constant until the end.
Tip: Take the time to identify your strengths. Focus on them and don’t look back.