Lou and the Empty Idea File

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I met Lou when the small business I worked for brought
him on as a partner to help us offer a new line of services. Lou had a great
track record.

By the time he came to us, he’d started two different small businesses and
helped them grow into mid-sized business. He sold each business, convinced that
it was time for a life of leisure, but each time he missed the excitement of

He wasn’t what I expected. Lou had never heard of “dressing for success.” He
was always a little rumpled and he wore basketweave sandals, hardly the wingtip
shoes I was looking for. To make things worse, he didn’t have a strategy.

I was going to college at night then and I knew we needed a strategy. That’s
what the books said. It’s what my professors said. I asked Lou what the strategy
was for the new business.

“I’m going to call on some people,” he said. That’s what he did. Lou went to
a tall building in the center of town, took the elevator to the top and started
knocking on doors. He was halfway down before he had our first customer. The
second didn’t come until two buildings later.

That wasn’t how I thought it should work, I had no idea how Lou would succeed
without a sophisticated strategy. Besides, I’d noticed that he had a file on his
desk labeled “Ideas” and that the file was empty. To me it was just proof that
Lou really wasn’t all that smart.

After class one night, several of us stopped at a tavern for a beer before
heading home and I started waxing eloquent (and probably loud) about dumb old
Lou and his basketweave sandals and empty idea file. I was feeling smart and on
top of it all when a voice cut in.

“Excuse me.” We all looked up at a well-dressed businessman standing at our
table. We quieted down, but before anyone could ask the man what he wanted he
looked at me and said, “I’ll buy a round if you’ll just shut up and listen for a

I knew something unpleasant was about to happen, but my friends said “yes” to
the free beer. They were also enjoying my discomfort. The beer arrived.

Our visitor looked at me. “How many businesses have you started and run,
son?” The answer was none, of course.

“Do you work for Lou or does he work for you?” I admitted that I worked for

“I worked for Lou at his last company,” our visitor told us. “And I’ll work
for him again anytime. He’s a good boss and he makes money for everybody. You
know why he doesn’t have some fancy strategy?”

I was feeling really small by now. “No, sir.”

“Because he doesn’t need one. He knows that until somebody sells something,
nothing will happen, so he’s getting customers. And that idea file that you
think is funny because it’s empty?”

“Yes, sir.”

“He never lets an idea get that far. When Lou gets an idea, he tries it out
right away.”

I learned several things that night. The most important thing is that being
smart isn’t enough. I’ve had to learn that lesson more than once.

I also learned that business is action, not planning, and certainly not ideas
that only wind up in a file.

Boss’s Bottom Line

Everyone who’s been successful has something to teach you, even if they wear
basketweave sandals. But you won’t learn until you stop talking and look and

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