This CEO says 'thinking like a grandpa' is the key to success

Brian de Haaff
John Greim | Getty Images

"Think like grandpa?" That may sound like backward advice. Times have changed. What could our grandparents possibly have to say about running a business today? Well, I think they have plenty to say.

Our grandparents could see a better tomorrow, but knew it was up to them to realize it. They put everything, body and soul, into building something that would endure for generations.

Isidore Manpearl was one of those hard-working entrepreneurs. I tell his story in my new book about building a business people love, "Lovability." He was also my great-grandfather. Grandpa Isidore emigrated from Poland to the U.S. in the early 1900's. He walked the streets of New York looking for work, finally convincing a garment factory owner to hire him. It was the start he needed.

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He worked hard and paid attention to what people desired: fashionable hats. Over time, he built multiple hat factories between the 1930's and 1950's. That was no small feat, considering he came to the U.S. with nothing but his dreams and the name and address of a distant family member.

He retired at 50, after selling his hat empire, and moved out west. He became a writer and lived another 46 years — almost another lifetime. In many ways, Grandpa Isidore is a classic American success story. But none of it would have been possible without exceptional hard work, sacrifice and self-reliance, and not one ounce of hype.

For our grandparents and their grandparents' generations, dreams were built on their own backs and their own savings.

Brian de Haaff

But these days, we are bombarded with stories about companies that promise absurd growth and raise gobs of money all to propel themselves towards billion-dollar valuations. The mythical "unicorns," they are called. Unfortunately, these are often tales of greed and exaggeration, nothing about real value — putting off actual revenue and profit into the far future.

Well, I think it is time to get back to an old-fashioned way of doing business. Because no matter what you do for work, we could all stand to embrace:


Our grandparents did not have the luxury of massive funding events or incubators to kickstart a business. There were no "freemium" models backed by stacks of venture cash. This was a generation of self-reliant people who worked with their friends and family to build something great. Success did not come fast. It required sacrifice and it was not easy. The focus was on operating with efficiency, just to keep the doors open. But that kind of tenacity and self-sufficiency is sorely needed today. It makes it possible to say "no" to anything that distracts from achieving your vision.


If my grandfather had delivered a lousy product, he would not have been in business for long. He staked his reputation on the quality of what he was selling. But these days, too many products are over-promoted with empty promises. Combined with the current "growth-at-any-cost" mindset and it all leads to compromises — each one chipping away at integrity. "Who cares? Get a minimum viable product to market! Get the money, fast!" If you want a business that lasts, you have to ignore that story and be able to stand behind your people and your product.

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In the old days, our grandparents got to know customers by name and genuinely cared about solving their problems. Of course, most technology companies are not likely to know every customer by name. But I believe that people still want to know that someone cares about their problems and will put them first. If a customer contacts you, get back to them quickly. If a customer is unhappy, work hard to make it right — right away.


Our grandparents knew something we seem to have forgotten: The purpose of business is to build a profitable and sustainable company. No profit, no business. When we started Aha! my co-founder Dr. Chris Waters and I took the back-to-basics approach of our grandparents to heart. We focused on building a profitable company by serving customers and creating value. Not very exciting. But when you consider the write-downs and scathing exposés on overhyped startups, I'll bet you would prefer a predictably profitable company to that kind of excitement.

For our grandparents, the only way you got people to recommend your business was to deliver value, offer great service, and get to know and care about your customers.

I see far too many companies claiming a premature victory before they have done the hard work to earn customer love. But customer love is fundamental to sustainable success. We have seen this proven out at Aha! — customers take the time to express their gratitude and it validates our old-school approach. It even inspired me to write a new book, which I mentioned above, about the concept of "lovability."

See, customers do not ask for much really. People are tired of the hype and feeling hoodwinked. We all want the most value for our hard-earned money, whether we are buying software or a brand-new hat. I know I would like to see fewer subpar products in the world.

Think like a grandpa: Deliver what you promise. Anything short of that is lost love.

What lessons of the past inspire you?

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Brian de Haaff seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world's #1 product roadmap software — and the author of Lovability. His two previous startups were acquired by well-known public companies. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life. Connect with him @bdehaaff

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