Lukas Z's Blog

The Essentialism of Sam Walton

The title is a bit fancy, isn’t it? It’s the first thing that came to mind. (I’m using this blog as a diary now, just typing either here or into my private diary which is of course not published.)

Anyway, I have started reading “Made in America” by Sam Walton, which is the autobiography of the founder of Wal-Mart. Which is one of the first discount stores, meaning, they buy larger quantities of merchandise from producers and wholesale and sell it with just a relatively small markup. But, do that often enough, and a fortune is created.

I started reading it after I heard that every manager at Amazon has to read that book, it’s required reading, as dictated by Jeff Bezos. Being a fan of what Bezos does (and stubbornly ignoring all the bad press about Amazon I guess..), I couldn’t resist to get that book. It must be good!

And indeed, it is. Not all good books are biographies, but most biographies are good books. At least in my experience so far. Because you get to know the person, and how he sees the world. (“He” because I haven’t read any women’s biographies yet.) And what strikes me with Sam Walton are the following traits:

  • At some point early in life he commits to being a retailer, and that’s it. After that he’s compeltely focused on it. It’s part of his life, the biggest part of course, next to being a family man and a citizen of small towns in Arkansas. (Haven’t finished the book yet, but so far this is what it looks like to me.)

  • He is relentless. When he travels he checks out the competition. The Waltons go on family trips together and Sam uses every chance to stop a stores that interest him (often he just heard about them somewhere) to check them out. He is constantly learning from the competition. “Everyone does some things well.” seems to be his motto and he’s out to find those things and use them in his own stores.

  • He is not fancy. He doesn’t mind going through the trash of his competitors to get their pricing (so he can set his lower I suppose), or doesn’t mind if any of his managers does it. The stores are number one on his mind, and social norms or what others think of him isn’t even close. (But he seems to be a very likeable and rather popular guy nonetheless. Very extroverted.)

  • He is constantly hacking and optimizing. To get into a trade show early he talks a janitor into letting him in. To get from store to store quicker, he buys an old airplane and learns to fly it to save time. And of course he’s constantly on the lookout for new merchandise. (On business trips, when others go out for beers after the day is done, he’s either sleeping or studying merch catalogues.)

  • He is frugal. In one passage he expresses his hope that future generations of Waltons will not become ‘idle rich’. He really seems to dislike the idea.

  • He makes a point in understanding bookkeeping and all other rather dull parts of his business. He doesn’t outsource any of it, he’s on top of the books, because they are essential for retailers.

I’ll stop here for now, but the book is so great, I might post again because I’m impressed.

Takeaways for my life: People are different and for me life was always more about variety and adventure. But I understand a) that this is definitely not the case for most people and b) that I need to focus to get things done.

I can tell you two things that I didn’t know to do one year ago: Play guitar and piano at a level that would allow me to join a good band(, however not as the lead pianist or guitarrist, not that). I also learned a lot regarding my work and other things that interest me.

In summary, I have made let’s say 10% progress in the fields of music, engineering, finance etc. The lesson is clear: Had I focused 100% of my attention and time on one thing, say guitar, then I would be a damn good player by now. And Sam Walton, he’s a 100% type of guy. Well, more or less, but he has that guiding north star in his life, and it shows him the way. He’s an essentialist.

There’s a saying, and I’m paraphrasing, but it goes something like this: “If a person starts to focus on a thing, the universe and all in it comes to help.”

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