It was the early 70’s when children were still free to roam the neighborhood without a hovering parent nearby, and I was a scrawny, pony-tailed eight-year-old with pretty big dreams. When I told my mom that I wanted a job, she never laughed or told me what a silly idea it was for a little kid. Instead, she opened the world of entrepreneurship to me by suggesting that I sell Grit Magazine door to door.
It didn’t take a lot to get started – just a phone call to the regional representative and an address where the contract and sample papers should be delivered. When the first set arrived, I surveyed the stack of papers sitting in our garage and started to dream. I could finally buy my own Easy Bake Oven – I hadn’t quite grasped the concept that when Mom said no, it meant no even if I was spending my money – and have money to spend at the dime store and the school’s book fair. I’d fallen for the seductive entrepreneurial dream of getting rich quick without understanding the price it takes to reach that goal. I’m glad I got that out of the way early in my life, because it helped me be a lot more realistic when I decided to launch future endeavors.
Entrepreneurship is rarely about getting rich quick, and there really are no overnight successes – just motivated, hard-working creative people who have put their heart, soul and most of their money into a big idea they deem worthy of the effort.
I remember my first time out on my paper route. I knocked on the door of an elderly lady and asked her if she’d like to buy the Grit Magazine in my wagon for only a quarter (already counting up the number of Tootsie Rolls I could buy with the ten cents profit I would make from her purchase).
She stopped me cold. “What’s in the newspaper, young girl?”
What was in it? I didn’t read it. It was for old people. I stammered and stuttered an answer. “I don’t really know.”
She gave me a hard look and barked, “Then you’d better learn a lesson. If you want somebody else to buy what you’re selling, then you’d best know what you’re talking about. You need to read that thing from cover to cover so you can get excited and tell me why I want my own copy.”
As she closed the door, she left a parting shot of hope. “Now you go home and read that magazine, young lady, and then come back.”
I didn’t try to sell any more newspapers that day. Instead, I fought back tears all the way home. I grabbed one of the papers off the top of the stack, found a nice shady spot under our tree, and started reading, devouring the content that afternoon from cover to cover.
I’d learned a vital lesson that every entrepreneur must learn: eat your own dog food and do more research than your competitor, because if you can’t talk the talk and walk the walk, you shouldn’t expect anyone else to buy what you’re selling or believe what you say.
The next day after school, I loaded up my wagon. With renewed purpose, I marched up the driveway and rang the doorbell of the woman who had sent me home in tears. She seemed a bit surprised I’d returned, and after I told her why she needed to buy one of my Grit Magazines, she tottered away from the door. My heart sank. I almost walked away, and it would have been a big mistake that many entrepreneurs make.
Tough questions and initial resistance are not signs of rejection or failure. It is the time to be persistent and patient. Your customer will tell you with great certainty when the answer is no; until then, assume it is your job to continue respectfully engaging them in a discussion about your product or giving them time to digest the information you’ve shared.
I waited for what seemed like an eternity, staring at the faded wallpaper in her doorway. And then I heard her shuffling back and watched her long, gnarled fingers struggle with her change purse. I graciously accepted the proffered quarter held out to me, thanked her and hurried off to the next house. I continued to ring her doorbell every week, and she continued to buy my papers until we finally moved away.
Sometimes our toughest prospects turn out to be our most loyal clients. Why? Because we’ve already answered all their questions and allayed their fears. Once they’re in, they’re convinced and committed.
I sold my entire stack of magazines that afternoon and ordered more for the next issue. And when the delivery came, I read the issue cover to cover before I left the house. And sold out again.
It was a valuable lesson I learned that day, one that has served me well many times since then. She seemed like such a crank at the time, but I know now that the grouchy lady down the street was doing me a favor. And I wish I could thank her, but I think the skip in my step as I walked down her driveway was probably all the thanks she needed to know she’d done the right thing.
I still use the lessons I learned as a young girl. When I founded APPCityLife in 2009, I spent a great deal of my time talking about mobile before most even knew what it was or why it would matter in a few years. But I kept learning and talking and meeting with leaders of companies and communities, answering the tough questions and listening to what my customers were telling me about their problems that needed solved in mobile. And as I begin implementing some exciting new changes to my company, they are all due to listening to the customer and finding a Big Idea that not only meets their needs but disrupts the status quo.
We mustn’t lose sight of the fact that if we are not solving a real problems for real customers and hearing what it is they need, we won’t survive as an entrepreneur no matter how good our product or how sexy our sales pitch. In the end, it’s the same lesson I learned when I was eight years old: do your homework, be persistent and reliable, be honest and then go do something brilliant.