Colonel Sanders: Lessons on Starting and Maintaining a Business
As we watch Colonel Sanders return to TV commercials for KFC, it’s easy to forget that he was a real person and not just a corporate mascot. Harland David Sanders was born in 1890 and didn’t start selling fried chicken until he was 40 years old. But through hard work, experimentation, and persistence he built one of the largest fast food chains in the world. Here are five important business lessons we can learn from the Colonel.
1. It’s never too late to start a business
Harland Sanders worked a variety of jobs before he set up a small restaurant. He labored on a railroad, sold insurance, and even ran a ferry boat. He also operated a legal practice but was disbarred after attacking his own client in court. Despite these setbacks, Sanders never gave up. He kept working until he found his niche. And it’s never too late for you to do the same.
2. Do one thing – and do it well
In 1929, Sanders opened a gas station in Kentucky. He added a restaurant a year later, but soon realized that the food was better received than the gas. He closed the gas station and focused on the restaurant. The McDonald’s brothers also followed this principle. They originally opened a barbecue restaurant, but eventually realized that hamburgers were their main source of profit. As a business owner, it’s tempting to try to offer a wide variety of products or services. But focusing on your core strength is the best way to build a successful business.
3. The best form of advertising is word of mouth
In the days before social media, Sanders relied on word of mouth to attract customers. He had a recommendation from Duncan Hines’s Adventure in Good Eating, but other than that his restaurant had to stand on its own merits. And it did. Sanders added additional seating and kept expanding for the next 20 years. Advertising is important, but the quality of your product is ultimately what will keep customers coming back.
4. Don’t give up
Sanders’s business continued to flourish for another decade. In 1950, he was honored with the title “colonel” and began looking into franchising. But in 1955, a new interstate bypassed his restaurant and drew customers away. Sanders sold the restaurant at a loss in 1956, leaving him with just his savings and his Social Security check. Most people would have given up at this point. But Sanders got into his car and began driving to restaurants across the country, looking to franchise his chicken. Eventually, businesses started coming to him. By the time Sanders sold his business in 1964, there were more than 600 KFC franchises. If a 65-year old Sanders can keep working even after watching his longtime business fail, then other businesses have no excuse for not adapting to sudden and harsh circumstances.
5. Be careful of what you sign
Not every lesson from Colonel Sanders is a positive one. In 1964, he sold the rights to KFC for $2 million, which is about $15 million today. But while Sanders could have retired and lived out his remaining days in comfort, he instead became a thorn in the side of KFC. He filmed commercials and made appearances as “The Colonel” for KFC. But in the franchise’s first convention after its IPO, he denounced management in front of everyone. In 1973, he sued Heublein Inc., the company which owned KFC at that point. Then in 1975, Heublein sued Sanders back for slandering the new KFC recipes. Sanders would repeatedly criticize the new recipes, calling it “sludge” and “wallpaper paste.” But while Sanders ranted and raved, he still signed the contract which gave up his rights. He probably wanted the $2 million more than control of KFC, but his rants towards the end of his life helped no one and harmed both his reputation and KFC’s.
In conclusion, Colonel Sanders’s business acumen was based on hard work, experimentation, and persistence. By following his example and focusing on one’s core strengths, a business can achieve great success. But it’s also important to stay humble, be willing to adapt, and be careful of what contracts one signs. Colonel Sanders may have been a successful businessman, but his later years serve as a cautionary tale of what can happen if one loses sight of what’s truly important in business.