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You’re not in the ______ business, you’re in the People Business

This is one of those lessons that’s so obvious that many people don’t notice it for years… and some never notice it at all. Even when you’re taught, it sometimes won’t sink in for a long time.

I was 18 the first time I heard it. I was selling cars at the local Nissan dealership, and had absolutely no idea what I was doing. One of the senior reps had taken me under his wing, who I’ll call Tom.

Tom was a lot of things (a felon being one of them), but he was nothing more than he was the consummate people person. He knew exactly how people worked, intuitively. Right down to his socks. A few months before I started, he’d come in off the street and gotten a job without an interview, and had become a floor manager shortly thereafter.

One of the first things he taught me was exactly what you read before you clicked on this letter. “Kid, you’re not in the car business. You’re in the People Business.”

And over 8 years that followed my time at that dealership, I learned that this axiom is true for every industry I’ve been a part of. If you can find an exception, please email me with it. But for now, I have yet to find a single one.

The misguided focus on the product or service

Another way Tom expressed this thought is “People don’t buy a drill—they buy a hole.”

You don’t buy a car because you want a car. You buy a car because:

  • You want to get from point A to point B
  • Your current car is falling apart and you want to feel safe behind the wheel
  • You don’t have a car and are tired of the humiliation brought by bumming rides from your friends

You hire an accountant because:

  • Your business is disorganized and it’s costing you money
  • You’re paying more taxes than you should be
  • You’re trying to get a loan and they need financial information you don’t know how to prepare

The reasons are numerous. But everybody has a reason for purchasing a product or service.

And the most successful people who offer a product or service—from car dealers and accountants to drug dealers and hitmen—are successful because they understand that their success is not about their product.

It’s about what their product DOES for the people who purchase it.

If you want to get a feel for just how few people really understand this, look at your LinkedIn messages. How many cold DMs have you received in the last 6 months that were pure product pitches? Or worse, began as a conversation and devolved into a pitch within 15 messages?

If the answer frustrates you, cut these people some slack. Understanding the People Business requires a great deal of empathy, and most people are not in an empathetic perspective all the time. The human brain can only focus on one thing at a time, and empathy is a state of mind that usually needs to be entered into intentionally.

Jeez, I’ve been working for myself for 8 years and I don’t even practice what I’m preaching all the time. It’s easy to lose your balance when you’re constantly looking at your feet instead of the ground in front of you.

But I promise, if you take the Beople Business seriously and learn to think like a fish (not a fisherman), you’ll perform better in all areas of your calling.

You see the customer, your business, and your solution. But you often miss the customer's problem, and you won't see it unless you look for it.

Conversely, the customer sees only their problem, themself, and your business. But they won't see your solution unless you show it to them.

How to enter the People Business perspective

If you’re selling a drill, you shouldn’t be looking for people who need a drill. You should be looking for people who need what a drill can do for them.


What does your drill do?

A drill might:

  • Let people without drills make holes
  • Let people without drills prepare for the possibility of needing a hole in the future
  • Let people with inferior drills make holes cleaner, deeper, wider, better, faster
  • Let people without drills OR with inferior drills feel better about themselves by having a more comprehensive toolkit

There are a LOT of possible problems, real and imaginary, that a drill can solve. And you find them by entering an empathetic state. Assume the role of your customer and explore what they feel. Find ways that your product can make their life better.


The most effective way to figure out what people want is to just ask them. Seriously, it’s astonishing what people will reveal about their problems if you just make a cursory effort to show interest. People LOVE to talk about their problems.

Talk to your audience on the phone. Sit down with them over meals. If possible, shadow them for a few hours at work. Pay them for an hour of their time and interview them. Do whatever you can to understand your audience better and figure out what they need, and find as many ways to solve that problem through your products and services as possible.

Continuing engagement

This is especially relevant for ongoing service businesses, but applicable to everyone. Gather as much data, both quantitative (numbers and figures) and qualitative (words and sentiments), about your existing customers as you can.

Figure out what they like about your product or service and what they don’t like. Figure out WHY they like it or dislike it. Find ways to improve the positive metrics and reduce the negative metrics. Always be experimenting, even if it’s just an hour or two a month. The business who stops trying to improve is the same one that gradually decays into obscurity.


You are in the people business. I do not care what your product or service is. Everything that we do as humans is in the interest of ourselves and the people around us. That’s how we survived the millions of years it took for us to evolve into our present state. We take care of each other.

Find a way to take care of your people. Take their perspective and walk a mile in their shoes. Talk to them and ask them about their problems. Then, find a way to give them what they want and need, and always be finding ways to do it better. And finally, remember that you’re either making an effort or you’re dying. There are varying degrees of each, but there is nothing in between.

Serve well and be exceptional, friend.


I'm John Kakuk.

I’m a brand designer, web developer and marketer working with architects, engineers and construction companies. My purpose is to help others achieve the best versions of their businesses and themselves.

Here's how I can help you: