09th May, 2016
As we watch Colonel Sanders return to the airwaves in several KFC commercials, we often forget that unlike Ronald McDonald, Sanders was a real human being.
Harland David Sanders was born in 1890, and did not start selling fried chicken until 1930. But when he finally sold his business at the age of 75, he set a path for one of the largest fast food chains in the entire world.
So what were his business secrets? Here are five important secrets which any businessman can learn from the colonel, both in starting a business and maintaining it afterwards.
It is never too late to start a business
Harland Sanders worked all sorts of jobs before he set up a small restaurant. He labored on a railroad, selling insurance, and operating a ferry boat. He even operated a legal practice for about five years until he attacked his own client in court.
Did Sanders’s time operating a ferry boat or practising law help him create KFC? Probably not. But while Sanders was repeatedly licked in whatever job he did, he just kept on working until he was able to find his niche. And it is never too late for you do the same thing.
Do one thing – and do it well
In 1929, Sanders opened a gas station in Kentucky. He opened the restaurant as a diversion a year later, but the station became more and more known for his excellent food. A short while later, Sanders decided to just close down the gas station and focus on his restaurant.
And Sanders is not the only example of a fast food founder cutting down to what he specialized in. The McDonald’s brothers originally started their first restaurant specializing in barbecue until they realized that about 80 perfect of their profits came from hamburgers.
There are a lot of businessmen who try to be all things to all consumers, and as a result just end up annoying all consumers.
The best form of advertising is word of mouth
Sanders did not have Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram as a way to attract customers. What he did have was word of mouth, and a recommendation from Duncan Hines’s Adventure in Good Eating. But that was enough to keep his restaurant thriving, as Sanders added additional seating and kept expanding for the next 20 years.
Advertising is a means to an end. As much as businesses stress out about marketing, they often forget that the product is the most important thing.
Don’t give up
Sanders’s business continued to flourish. In 1950, the governor of Kentucky honored him with the non-military title of “colonel”, the actual origin of his name as opposed to a military background. Sanders began to look into franchising, and in 1952 began selling the rights to “Kentucky Fried Chicken” to local restaurants in exchange for four cents for every chicken sold.
But then in 1955, a new interstate built for the Kentucky Derby bypassed Sanders’s 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. He was 65 years old and had arthritis.
A lesser man would have just hung his hat and called it a career. Not Sanders. He 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. There’s always to pick yourselves up after something goes wrong, if you can sit down and calmly figure out what to do next.
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 massive thorn in the side of KFC.
Sanders 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.