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Warren Buffett, the Biggest of the Big, Learns from Small Business Owners

Posted in: Events

Warren Buffet and others on stage

Warren Buffett knows everything, right?

I wouldn’t be surprised if you thought that. Buffett is one of the richest people in the world. The release of his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders is an event, with breathless news coverage and investors poring over every word for some morsel about what the future of finance might hold. He’s the guru on business.

Considering how revered the Oracle of Omaha is, it was so refreshing to hear Buffett say this about the business owners in Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses: “I learn something every time I listen to them.”

Buffett made that comment during the June 7 graduation event for the 20th cohort of 10,000 Small Businesses in New York, which is a partnership between Goldman Sachs and LaGuardia Community College to help entrepreneurs grow their businesses and in turn, create jobs and economic opportunity, by providing access to business education, capital and technical assistance. Buffett was on a panel with Michael Bloomberg, Jack Dorsey and Lloyd Blankfein.

Savannah Guthrie, who was moderating the panel, noted that the GS10K graduations are the only commencement ceremonies that Buffett speaks at, and that’s when the man who is #2 on Forbes 400 list replied, “I learn something every time I listen to them.”

With that one sentence, Buffett was demonstrating that knowledge can come from anyone, anywhere, anytime. Buffett, no doubt, has some of the top business experts working for him but he realizes he can still learn from the man or woman busting butt at a small business. In fact, maybe it’s that in-the-trenches perspective that Buffett relishes, because he’s not exposed to it on a daily basis.

But Buffett may not be as removed as we might think. Forbes says he is “known for his relative frugality, still living in the Omaha home he purchased for $31,500 in 1958.” And there was a great vignette to reflect this during the GS10K graduation at LaGuardia Community College on June 7. Buffett was telling the audience to write on the mirror each morning—in lipstick or whatever is handy—“Delight my customer.” Buffett noted that he wasn’t saying to “satisfy” the customer, but to “delight” the customer. Buffett then talked about the last time he bought a car, and how he didn’t remember how much he had paid but he remembered how the dealers made him feel. The message being that if you delight your customers, and make them feel good, they will keep coming back. (And perhaps the more interesting message being: Buffett, who bought the nation’s largest privately held car dealership chain in 2014, shops for his own car. Jason Frasca noted Michael Bloomberg’s reaction to Buffett’s car-buying habits here.)

The Goldman Sachs program is for truly small businesses: applicants need to have at least $150,000 in annual revenues, but no more than $4 million. In contrast, Buffett’s net worth is estimated at $66.9 billion by Forbes.

The hashtag used at the event was #MakeSmallBig. With Buffett, the biggest of the big, saying he learns from the graduates of Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses, that hashtag was certainly appropriate.