I’ve never held a quota. Truth be told, I’ve never had a job with the words ‘sales’ or ‘business’ in my title. Yet, everything I do requires salesmanship and business development/strategy.
We now assign fancy words like business model, arbitrage, viral to describe things that a thirteen year-old looking to make a few extra bucks innately understands. I was once that thirteen year-old kid and here is what I learned about sales and business models along the way:
What a Camp in France Taught Me About Arbitrage & Viral Sales:
Back in the nineteen-nineties Michael Jordan’s led Chicago Bulls were racking up multiple NBA championships. Thanks to Nike’s marketing of Air Jordan shoes Michael and the Bulls became the first internationally recognized NBA team. Most summers my parents would send my brothers and me off to camp in France – my mother is French and her entire family resides there. Before heading off to France for camp one summer the Bulls had just won another championship so we went down to what was effectively a t-shirt warehouse and bought sixty Chicago Bulls championship t-shirts for about $5/each.
When we arrived at camp in France as any good twelve-year-old Bulls fan we wore our Bulls t-shirts – everyday. As expected our fellow campers started asking us about our Bulls t-shirts. Without doing a hard sell we would just mention that we had a couple of extra ones we could sell. A few hours later and off to the side we sold them a t-shirt for anywhere between $15 to $20 – a 3x to 4x return for schlepping a duffel bag from Chicago to the French alps.
Early on we chose our customers selectively. We targeted our sales at the cooler kids who in turn would wear their new Chicago Bulls t-shirts around camp. The other kids started asking these cooler kids how they got these t-shirts, and pretty soon we had French kids lining up at our bunk-bed buying Chicago Bulls t-shirts. Kids were desperately calling their parents asking them to send more money to purchase t-shirts while we were desperately calling back home Chicago trying to get a fresh supply.
That duffel bag of Chicago Bulls t-shirts netted us about $700 for the summer.
What a Carpenter Taught Me About the Power of Referrals:
Before heading to camp each summer I spent a few weeks working for a carpenter, Michael. By far the hardest job I ever had. I would be up by 5:30AM and at the job-site by 6:45AM working through the steamiest part of the day.
We spent two weeks refurbishing a deck. It was the most elaborate deck I had ever built with him. By the second week Michael told me that we were losing money on the deck. I lobbied him to go back and ask for more money but he refused. He lost a good chunk of change on the deck.
The following year his business had picked up – instead of just Michael he had a team of four guys. What was responsible for this growth? It turns out the lady whose deck we refurbished the year prior hosted lots of parties on her elaborate deck. People asked her about the deck and she gave them Michael’s name, so now he had four people and three times the number of jobs.
Growing a Lawn Mowing Business via Free-to-Paid:
This later become popularized as “freemium” but as a ten year old looking to make some extra cash my brothers and I would first offer our lawn mowing services for free. Why free? Anybody who did not hire professional landscapers thought they enjoyed mowing the lawn, or at least that’s what they told us. So, we pitched them on mowing their lawn for free twice, and if we did a good job we asked that they consider hiring us. People thought we were crazy, and probably just thought I can get a few free lawn mowing services from these kids. Chicago summers are brutally hot and muggy. Weather extremes worked to our favor. Once our free customers tasted the pleasure of sitting in an air-conditioned house watching a baseball game rather than enduring the sweltering heat for an hour most became paying customers. We had ourselves a nice lawn mowing service. We then parlayed this into shoveling snow (known as cross-selling).
What a Chicago Bond Trader Taught Me About Chasing the Right Customer:
This was my one and only job in the financial services world. I was a runner for a successful bond trader on the Chicago Board of Trade. He traded for his own account and like most traders incurred significant profit and loss swings on a weekly basis. I recall one day we took a big hit and lost $250,000. A mistake I made cost us an additional $15,000. I was obviously very upset about the situation and at myself.
We came off the trading floor, had lunch, and all the while I am thinking as soon as we are done eating we are heading back onto the floor to get even. After breakfast my trader turned to me, and said “see you tomorrow.” I stared at him for a moment thinking it was a joke – he was a prankster. It was not; he had no intention of chasing a market that didn’t suit his trading pattern. He knew markets that move in slow motion are not his forte. He needed choppy and fast moving market to make money.
For most of us when we see an opportunity to pitch and sell our instinct is to start chasing. This taught me to take a step back (easier said then done) and chase the right type of customer.
What Ritz Camera Taught Me About Browsers vs. Buyers:
I learned this from my younger brother, Eytan, who sold cameras at Ritz Camera during high-school. It’s pretty simple. Buyers make eye contact or ask questions. Browsers keep their head down and start touching things to avoid eye contact. They rarely convert into a sale, and should be left alone. I am reminded of this everytime I see websites trying to grab my attention in some unnatural manner. Hint: If I provide you with a signal (question or eye-contact) it gives you permission to engage me further and it won’t feel so awkward.
P.S. Popular summer jobs that people mistakenly believe provide good returns:
- Selling peanuts/drinks at baseball games. Sounds sexier than it truly is. Requires years of climbing the ladder to sell the stuff that actually makes money (soda). Furthermore, you are forced to buy the merchandise upfront – if the game is a blowout or gets rained out you are left with unsold inventory and very few or no potential customers. Unless you are in it for the long haul (4+ summers) the net returns are uninteresting.
- Caddying at the local golf club requires multiple years of kissing the caddy masters’ ass to make money. I am not a good ass-kisser, have no patience for the game of golf, and didn’t enjoy telling customers their golf game was improving when in fact they just sucked – all the time. I was a total failure.