Nick Wakeman


Lessons my parents taught me

During college and my early years in journalism, I made frequent trips back to Luray, Va., to help in the family restaurant. I enjoyed the work. My mother had taught me to bake so I’d get an early morning start in the kitchen baking bread and pies. Then for lunch and dinner, I was a combination of host and busboy.

When I made the decision to go back and work full-time to see if I wanted to make the restaurant my career, I thought I knew what I was getting myself into.

Weekends were always busy but you also knew that after the killer lunch rush on Sunday, things would taper off and Monday through Friday had a steady but reasonable pace.

But then July came, and everything changed. There was no lull. No break. You didn’t get those slow couple of hours in the afternoon. A Tuesday or Wednesday in July or August were like a Saturday at almost any other time of the year.

I look back on those two years with fondness and with a realization that it was a great lesson on running a successful business.

I can’t draw direct parallels to government contracting, because we weren’t bidding on contracts or acquiring other companies, but there was constantly evolving competition, changing customer tastes and the need to continually make the business grow.

If that isn’t the reality of the government market, I don’t know what is.

My mother liked data. She not only kept track of the number of customers served at breakfast, lunch and dinner, but also what the weather was like and what was happening in the outside world. The Redskins were still a reliable winner in those days, so when the Skins played the Cowboys, you knew business would drop off quickly that afternoon.

Another great source were the salesmen who served us. My father always made a distinction between salesmen and order takers. He didn’t have much use for order takers, but a salesman would spend some time talking. He’d walk back in the kitchen. He’d volunteer to do a quick inventory of items. All of this helped him understand what we were doing and how he could help.

An order taker never asks good questions, just how many cases of napkins do you need this week? Or he’d tell you about his shrimp special.

My parents also had a keen sense of what their customers did. For example, they knew who had a 30 minute lunch break and who had an hour. They knew what those customers ordered often would be different, so we had to serve both.

My reminiscing was triggered by David Hubler’s cover story this issue about what companies do to prepare for bigger contract opportunities.

Whether it is IT or the blue plate special, the key is delivering what your customers are asking for and anticipating their needs.

My mom and dad always want customers to leave with a smile because they knew they’d be back. That lesson should also apply to government contractors.

About the Author

Nick Wakeman is the editor-in-chief of Washington Technology. Follow him on Twitter: @nick_wakeman.

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