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20. How to win friends for small business

I am staying with gurus born in the nineteenth century for the moment – it seems incredible that they could still have something to say relevant to today, but most fundamentals never change. My next guru has more in common with personal development superstars like Tony Robbins and Stephen Covey than with the more academic and consultancy-based side of business writing from the likes of Seth Godin and Macolm Gladwell.

He was a failed actor and successful salesman, who started in business with courses to help people with public speaking, but when at the age of 48 in 1936 he published How to Win Friends and Influence People he became a top-seller overnight and the first self-help superstar. By the time of his death in 1955 he had sold 15 million copies of his book, and his continued popularity is attested by sales which now exceed 50 million copies worlwide. He is Dale Carnegie – Dale Carnegie courses are delivered in 75 countries and over 7 million people have been on one.

Dale Carnegie is interesting as he is neither academic nor corporate, nor a consultancy hot shot, and, although the organisation he founded’s training courses are very much business courses, his message is not just focused on business. Like all the self-help gurus, the message is much more about personal development and effectiveness.

Another aspect which is interesting about Dale Carnegie is that his message is not about strategy or markets or technology and systems. It focuses on one of the most important aspects of business, but one which has never had academic status and gets little focus in most business text books and that is selling. As almost a by-product of this, it also has a lot to say about business relationships of all sorts, with staff and suppliers as well as customers.

One of the problems of owner-managed business is that that person often has to be all things: ideas man, personnel officer, legal compliance supervisor, administrator, strategist, technician, shop floor worker, buyer and salesman. Probably more than in any other size business, results are dependent on the personality of one person. So winning friends and influencing people is usually key. And Dale Carnegie’s approach is one that any small business can learn from – technology may have changed but people have not really evolved very far in the last 70 years or so.

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