Thursday, November 15, 2007

Career Life Lessons-from An 11 Year Old Businessman

You remember the neighborhood paperboy. Almost everyone took the daily paper. The kings of the paperboys in my mid-western city delivered to almost every house in an eight block area and sometimes had a helper. They could make $15 or more a week and the local newspaper set aside some money every week so when the paperboy retired at age 17 or 18 they might have up to $1000 or more to help get them started toward college. If you think this wasn’t much money-it would pay one year’s tuition and some of the expenses at a pretty good school. Like I said this was a long time ago but the lessons learned are just as applicable today.

You had to know somebody to get one of the big paper routes or be at least 13 or 14, but I uncovered a kid about my age (11) whose parents told him to quit because he was spending too much time and getting almost no return. This was a Sunday paper route with about 60 customers delivering the big fat Sunday paper from the big city. The paper reached our town on a train at about 3am Sunday morning. I paid $2.65 for the whole route. I calculated by the 5 cents a week commission from each customer that I’d have the money back in one week. My first lesson: A one week return on your investment you say had to be illegal or fattening but it was legal. Not a bad return on my investment.
The first Sunday was a disaster. My predecessor’s books were not up to date or in order. Lesson number 2: do your homework and don’t assume the other guy knows what he’s doing. It took me about four hours to deliver the papers and to try and collect my money. When I was all done I’d made about 35 cents. Lesson number 3: in a cash business don’t count your earnings until the money is in your pocket.

My father took a dim view of me spending most of my Sunday in my paper route business and he told me to fix it or quit. Lesson number 4: If you’re responsible do what your can to fix the problem. Everyone has a boss, it’s always the customers, and sometimes it’s your father.

I straightened out the books, drew a map and then put each customer on the map in order of delivery. Some customers were several blocks out of the way and very time consuming to service so I gave them to paperboys in adjacent areas. Lesson number 5: Not all customers are equal. Some you earn money on and some cost you money.

Now I had the receivables to consider. During the week I went knocking on doors. I introduced myself and explained my problem. I told the customer I wanted them to get the big city Sunday paper as early as possible, but I didn’t want to wake them to collect. Some offered to pay by the month, in advance. Others would put their money under a bottle or rock on their front porch. And a few didn’t have a solution; for example, they lived in an apartment so there was nowhere to put the money out. Lesson number 6: Ask the customer for a solution and most times they’ll come up with a good answer to your problem.

Several customers told of the disorganization of my predecessor, where he tried to collect twice, or didn’t come by for weeks and then neither really knew the correct amount to be collected. I apologized for him and asked what I could do to make it right? Lesson number 7: Customer service issues are difficult to overcome, but by being honest with the customer many times you’ll be given a second chance.

After about four weeks I have the route running as good as it could be. I make the deliveries before 7am each Sunday and after church stopped and collected from the few that owed me money. Then another challenge cropped up.
The newspaper manger announced a contest on who could get the most new subscriptions. After some thought, I went back to my customers and asked for referrals. I offered to give them a free Sunday paper if they gave me a referral that signed up. A number of new customers were outside my area but I increased my subscriptions by 25% and came in third in the contest. Lesson number 8: Know the value and cost of acquiring each new customer. For each free paper I gave out, I got the money back in five weeks, again an exceptional return on my marketing costs.

So here they are: eight career business lessons; (1) Know your return on investment; (2) Don’t assume: do your homework; (3) In a cash business don’t count your earnings until the cash is in the till; (4) If you’re responsible do what you can to fix the problem; (5) Not all customers are equal-some cost and some pay; (6) Ask the customer for a solution; (7) Customer service issues can be overcome with honesty; and (8) Know the value and cost of acquiring each new customer. Overall a good set of guidelines for any career or business.

I’m sure if you think about it you have some life lessons that you learned early on. Maybe it was a job that was horrible and you learned early you didn’t want to get into that career or line of work. Or maybe it was a good boss where you learned how to lead or a bad boss where you learned what not to do. Overall the secret is to take something positive away from each of our life lessons and you’re never too early to start. So as you grow in your career you can stand on your previous experiences and reach higher and higher goals.

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