During our years of grade school, my sisters and I usually took 1st and 2nd place and walked away with nearly all the Virgin Mary statues and second place prizes.
Once again I engaged in child labor by bringing my sister along for these sales expeditions.
When this large company started to experience a profit squeeze, the geniuses at the top decided the best place to cut expenses was the sales people. I started noticing ads in the newspaper by coin dealers in the city where they were buying silver certificates for $1.05 each. On Friday nights I would race to get my newspapers delivered, hurry to the bank, ask the teller for several hundred one dollar bills and start sorting through them picking out all the older silver certificates.
Eventually the silver coins became relatively scarce and the sorting became more like panning for gold in a river - more work than the time justified. Barth’s Mini Autobiography - written several year back as a class activity where students and teacher all engaged in reviewing their past. If an item did not produce a profit or contribute to drawing customers to buy other products, something needed fixed. I don’t suggest most 7 year olds be allowed to use a box cutter with a razor blade, but it worked exceptionally well for cutting the string and producing nice clean cuts dividing the wooden slats. There was something about our soil and the upstate New York weather that made for some great produce.
They were somewhat heavy and hard to balance on my bike, so I started looking for other ventures to pursue. This has some unfortunate similarities to the preponderance of young women found in trade show booths. My dad, who had fought in World War II in Germany, went to teacher’s college for a year dropping out to become a very successful salesman for a large company, and started a family with four kids, lost his job.
You see, Mauer’s Funeral Home bought these really fancy desk calendars that looked like they were made of genuine leather (they wern’t) and were mailed out to the over 6,000 residents of our town of Liverpool, NY.
This not only entailed selling people on the idea that they should have the afternoon paper delivered to their door come sunshine (a rarity in upstate NY), rain, or snow, but also involved the collection of money for the subscription. My $20 give or take profit might not seem like much, but it was very significant at the time.
Mom’s have a thing for weddings, so she really enjoyed working with the young girls (although probably not as much as me) and it became almost like a hobby for her that she could make money at. His timing was pretty good since his early working years coincided with the United States becoming the dominant player in the world economy following World War II and the advent of the Marshall Plan.
I noticed an ad for little plastic needle threaders in which you would insert a needle, lay the thread across the top, push this little button, and just like that the needle was threaded! The box cutter was out of site and after teaching my 5 year old sister how to weave these slightly over 10” slats together, I resorted to child labor for the real work.
For those of you who ever find yourselves involved in the business of sales, you must find a way to create excitement or romance in your product. I was able to buy these for something like 15 cents in quantity, and the selling price was either 49 or 59 cents, so the profit margins were nice.
Fortunately I was using this as another teaching and learning experience by having my sister act as bookkeeper and counting people’s change. At some point he needed some business cards and was looking for somewhere to get a better deal and stumbled across this company out of Chicago, called National Press. The owner had appeased me with a tiny order - probably to be ‘nice to the kid.’ My newspaper route ended at the funeral home doorstep, and on cold winter days I would sometimes go in to warm up and see if I could use the phone to get a ride home rather than walking.
While calendars at that time could cost from thirteen cents to a half dollar, plastic flyswatters could be had for as little as a five cents complete with company name and all.
There were a lot of people in town and he couldn’t afford to purchase one ‘whatever it would be’ for everyone.
And old people had a particular disdain for flies and all kinds of free time to pursue them to their untimely death match with a flyswatter!
The older silver certificates were redeemable for actual silver dollars (about an ounce worth) and silver was rising in value. I always expected them to tell me to get lost since this was somewhat of a nuisance for them, but since I had an account there and was always nice to them they continuously accommodated me. I spent some time with her and mom explaining how the pricing worked and then left my catalog with her for several days. We had those incredible tomatoes, green peppers, onions, carrots Bugs Bunny would die for, cantalopes, and lots more. Just as I had saved enough free money (Dad insisted we save 9 of every 10 dollars for college, so that left one free dollar for spending), my dad had a brilliant idea. This was a philanthropic endeavor without a profit motive (so I wasn’t totally greedy) although there was an element of school guilt and competitiveness involved. The sales pitch was that it would save your eyes - a strong selling point for elderly people! I was growing up in what I considered a slightly boring town in upstate NY, and was always sending off for anything that would produce a flow of mail.
There is a lesson here for kids who have a great plan to be a sports star or something else, but don’t think your education is essential for long term success. The problem is that when you cut the sales force, you not only cut expenses, but you cut off your income.
At about 14 years old I got in to see the President of Syracuse Savings Bank on the top floor of one of the most prestigious buildings in Syracuse, NY.
Ayer pulled me aside and told me he had been waiting for me to come by and dropped the big bombshell on me. He certainly couldn’t afford to replace a calendar every year, along with the necessary postage which could double the costs. I would go around to shop at the department stores, have lunch (which always included a milkshake) at one of the little luncheonettes that were popular back then, and a visit to the Lowe’s Theater for the latest movie (hopefully a James Bond feature). I would observe dad monitoring his stocks in the newspaper, recording their values and dividends on paper spreadsheets, and reading Fortune and Forbes magazine business articles. She must have felt this was just like a kindergarden activity, and I may have offered some small pittance for her effort, so she willingly became my production grunt. The payoff for my consulting was one of the biggest printing orders yet - everything he needed - business cards, stationary, envelopes, announcement cards, etc. After the nickle bus ride, lunch and a movie, I still usually had 95% of my profit when I got home.
Interestingly, the current price of silver is around $30 an ounce and at one point peaked at around $50 a few years back. I subsequently emulated him by scouring through these looking for little hidden entrepreneurial gems I could utilize in my own pursuits. I was not into bookkeeping at the time so I don’t really remember how much profit this venture made for me, but it certainly inspired my appetite for future ideas and making money.
So this idea was that I could sell Christmas cards for this company he came across, and they had all these toys and electronics you could get if you sold enough boxes.
Admittedly that was a major enticement, and my craving for the latest technology allowed me to postpone immediate gratification for the promise of something better later on.
Like I said - dad was an incredible salesman, and I was still a pretty gullible eight year old. Needless to say that sold me on the idea of starting my own business after seeing that people who work for organizations frequently become little puppets with no control of their destiny or ability to make their own decisions.
This cycle repeated itself on most weekends for several months creating more money for college. Since they were headed for the trash anyway, any money I could get for them would be all profit! I do recall setting the price at $1.00 which was a tidy sum in that day - it would have bought 4 gallons of gas. We would go to the village dump and scavenge for bigger speakers from old TV’s or radios that we could hook up by splicing the connections on our old headphones.
I sent away for their kit and they really did have a great radio in their catalog of gifts you could earn. One thing I will say about back then, our candy bars were a decent value unlike many of the overpriced things being peddled today. The greatest part was that although the silver certificates were becoming more scarce, the price being paid for them kept increasing. I learned that if I took my radio out to the street in front of our house and held it next to some of the wires running down the telephone pole, I could pick up some radio stations from all over the country.
This is a critical rule of marketing which many companies never get - no amount of gimmicks and salesmanship can overcome a crappy product or poor value.
I got the order for invitations, reception cards, response cards, all the envelopes, engraved champaign glasses, personalized matchbooks & cocktail napkins, engraved cake carving knife, and more!
Once this was accomplished, the slats were marked for cutting prior to the connecting string being cut. Once your reputation is established it is exponentially (a math term) more difficult to fix than to merely start over from scratch! The good part was that the price rose up to over 15? an ounce, which more than made up any difference and boosted profits. They were a little concerned doing business with a 13 year old, but I assured them that since we were ordering so far in advance of the wedding, they would have plenty of time to order elsewhere if the ‘kid didn’t come through.’ I never realized people spent so much on weddings, and this might have even conditioned my thinking towards not getting married too young. Fear of the unknown is a very powerful human emotion not easily overcome, even by a great 14 year old salesman.
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