After graduating law school and practicing for two years, I launched an airline ticket business which was quickly profitable. I sold that business in 1991 and then launched Hotel Reservations Network which became hotels.com. I sold the balance of my interest in hotels.com in 2003 and after a five year non-compete launched getaroom.com. Recently during our weekly Friday night dinner discussion, I mentioned that getaroom.com is growing and profitable and reached some new milestones.
My mother asked me, “How did you know what to do at this company and the others to make them succeed? You didn’t go to business school or work in a big company.”
She was right. I didn’t have any formal business training other than a basic course in accounting and finance. No work experience in a business. No internships. No mentors.
My answer surprised her. “I owe all of my business success to you and Dad for sending me to a Jewish Day School for 12 years. That’s where I learned best guide book to running a successful business ever written – the Bible.”
Here are the most important biblical principles that led to my success.
1. Do your homework.
I learned the principle of due diligence through Talmudic study. For years, I studied debates among rabbinical scholars on various topics. Nothing was taken for granted – all arguments were considered and debated. I learned to ask why and to make sure I understood the issues. Studying alone was not enough. We were paired with other students and spent much of our time discussing the issues with the classmate we were paired with before the next class. We learned to tear each other’s arguments apart. We read every commentary on the topic we could find.
I approached business the same way. I did my homework. I researched the competition. I tested the market. I argued the other side. There is no shortcut for doing your homework in a business and understanding the competitive landscape. Major mistakes can often be avoided and opportunities found by speaking to experts and analysts, tearing apart business plans, doing market studies and focus groups, analyzing expenses and doing your homework – due diligence.
2. Treat your employees fairly.
One of the most difficult parts of running a business is dealing with employee issues. Employees can be demanding: raises, time off, expenses, conflicts and more. When confronted with these issues, I just thought about the principle of paying employees on time: “The wages of a worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning” (Lev 19:13). The Torah also commands us not to take advantage of your employees: “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger” (Deut, 24:14). This taught me to always treat employees equally and fairly. I applied an absolute level of fairness among all our employees when it came to pay and all other issues. Race, age, gender, religion, color – these had no bearing. It is always difficult to say no, but when you develop a reputation for fairness to your employees, they respect you more and know that they were treated properly.
3. Have the highest level of customer service.
There is a high level of customer service issues in the travel business. Flight delays, lost luggage, noisy rooms, housekeeping issues and more. There are also many that try to take advantage of the system. I employed a very simple standard for customer care: “Love your neighbor like yourself” (Lev. 19:18) – put yourself in the shoes of the customer and treat them as you want to be treated. While many companies struggle with how to handle customer service, following this standard is the best way to build a long term loyal customer base.
We all prefer to patronize businesses that are fair on returns/exchanges and that treat us well. We refer our friends there. When we launched getaroom.com, top customer service was a great competitive advantage in a marketplace of foreign outsourcing and cost cutting. The high level of customer service has differentiated us in the marketplace and enabled us to build a loyal customer base. Treat your customers the way you’d want to be treated.
4. Be honest with customers.
I was constantly confronted with dilemmas: How much do we disclose to customers? Do we deliver exactly what was ordered or something inferior to make a higher profit? Do we put in slightly less weight than the amount the customer believes they are paying for? Do we charge the customer more than we agreed to charge? Do we refund them less? These answers are easy when you follow the Bible’s guidance: “You shall have just balances and just weights” (Lev. 19:36).
Even if your customer won’t find out – don’t cheat them. “Do not… put a stumbling block before the blind” (Lev. 19:14) means do not take advantage when the other party doesn’t know or see what you are doing to their disadvantage. We are often confronted with situations where we can increase profits by cutting corners or otherwise take advantage of the customer in a way that they won’t know about. Why not increase profits by using a cheaper material or a second hand product? Use lower cost components even though the customer believes you are using high end components. When confronted with these dilemmas, the answer is easy when following the biblical principle of not putting a stumbling block before the blind. Don’t cheat your customers, even if they don’t know about it.
5. Always act as if you are being watched.
Your customer overpays you. You receive a refund twice. You are at the cash register and are given a $100 bill instead of a $10 bill. Do you keep the funds that were mistakenly given you or do you give it back? Who will know?
The Sages say, “Know what is above you: An eye that sees” (Ethics of the Fathers, 2:1). When you realize that someone above is always watching you, the answer is easy. You act differently and work under a higher standard. You run your business and personal life honestly all the time.
6. Build a reputation for integrity and honesty.
The Talmud discusses the questions one is asked in the heavenly court at the end of one’s life (Shabbat 31a). The first question asked is: Were you honest in your business dealings? This is the first question because it’s the true measure of one’s success in life. There is no greater temptation to cheat than is a business setting where one can earn more profits. If you can overcome this great temptation, you will reach a high level of character that others esteem. Your customers, employees and those you do business with want to patronize your business. When you are honest, your business grows. You also have the right answer in the heavenly court. As the Medrash says, “If one is honest in his business dealings and people esteem him, it is accounted to him as though he had fulfilled the whole Torah” (Mechilta B’Shalach 1).
7. Be humble: accept and encourage criticism.
“He who loves instruction loves knowledge, but he who hates correction is stupid” (Proverbs 12:1). Judaism teaches us to be humble. Pride gets in the way of success. We all make mistakes. Never think you are always right. Accept and encourage criticism, especially from your employees that understand the business better than anyone. My best ideas came from customers and employees. We read every customer and employee suggestion carefully. I see so many managers and CEOs that don’t listen to their employee suggestions. This is a big mistake. By creating an environment that allows suggestions and criticism, you can greatly improve your business and allow employees and customers to feel more part of the business.
What to do once you are profitable
The Torah teaches us not only how to build a successful business, but also what to do once it is successful. The Bible teaches us to be socially responsible and not forget about those that don’t have food to eat. We have a social responsibility to our communities. We are obligated to donate a portion of our profits to the needy. Encourage your employees, partners and customers to also be charitable through incentive, matching and other programs. Donate a portion of your profits to charity. Run promotions that contribute a portion of every sale to charity. Match your employee charitable giving to encourage them to be charitable. Encourage your employees to do community service. Use your business as a vehicle for community improvement. “The generous soul will be made rich, and he who waters will also be watered himself” (Proverbs 11:24).
View your work as a means, not an end. When we help others, we feel fulfilled and accomplished. When you leverage your business to improve the community around you, you wake up every day and appreciate what you have accomplished for the community. As King Solomon said, “Our work is meaningless unless it is to do good” (Ecclesiastes 3:12–13). Let’s use our success to be socially responsible and we will live much more meaningful lives.