The spark for this serial post was the recent hashtag #firstsevenjobs that swirled around social channels from leading corporate CEOs and leaders throughout industry. I’ve been working in the advertising business for almost four decades. When I started to compile my #firstsevenjobs list since I started working at age 11 or so—I realized I had a rich, varied and unusual education. What struck me most was all the jobs that I had leading up to finally figuring out what I was good at (or at least successful at) in this business.
Mine was not a straight point-A-to-point-B route. I was not formally trained to be a copywriter or group head or creative director or president or CEO. So this post is the first of a batch I’ve been meaning to write about each one of those experiences—today we call them “learning opportunities.” They’re about what I learned, mistakes I made, observations about people that helped me get here one way or another. I plan to write one every couple of weeks or so.
“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.” Studs Terkel
I love to work. Maybe too much. From the very first time I got paid to do something, that connection was made for me. It started out of necessity. If I wanted to have extra money, my own money, to spend on the things I wanted as a kid, we were taught that you’d have to work for it. “Money is what makes the world go around,” according to my father. And he would’ve known—having worked his way through the Great Depression in the CCC’s and working almost all his life at least one, usually two, oftentimes three jobs at once. I vividly recall reading Studs Terkel’s Working in high school and being struck by the grit and grandeur of his profiles and interviews with real people about their work. Why they worked. How they worked. How it made them feel. I was especially struck by the humanity inside the stories of the common laborer, to use an antiquated term. But that’s what so many of my jobs as a kid were all about. Simple jobs that didn’t require specialized skills, could be picked up fast if you listened and learned. But there was always the opportunity to work a little better, a little faster, a little smarter, and make a little more out of it than the kid working next to you.
Job one. World’s largest paper route.
Like a lot of kids in our neighborhood delivering the newspaper was our first paying gig for me and my older brother, Tom. I guess we were pioneering job-sharers. The fact is that the paper route on our block of Columbia Avenue in Jersey City was the longest, largest (and most sought after) paper route in all of Hudson County. Our subscribers ran between 300–350, depending on the time of year, and stretched seven city blocks from Secaucus Road to Hutton Street. Tom and I both wanted a paper route—but nobody wanted this behemoth. Most routes averaged about 50–75 customers and could be done delivering in an hour or less. But when it became available, with a lot of encouragement from my father, we took it on, delivering the afternoon Jersey Journal from one end of Columbia Avenue to the other. It took about 2 1/2 hours for the route, depending on the weather. We loved the money after we completed our collections. But the race to get the paper in folks’ doors, under their doormats, on the front steps, in their milk boxes, on their stoops, tucked in the side screen door or snuggly rolled into their door knobs and the hundreds of customer requirements and special preferences our subscribers required took a lot of extra effort and time.
Even in my first paying job—lifelong lessons.
Listening and responding to your customers’ wants and needs does really pay off. Not only was our paper route the largest in Hudson County, we earned more each week after collections than any other route.
We had to deliver the paper the way customers wanted and in time to beat the dinner hour. Our on-time delivery, super service and the tiny ways we satisfied their needs gave each subscriber a custom, personal feel and we were richly rewarded. Our best tippers were from the folks with the unusual delivery requests. Precise instructions for how they wanted their paper folded, placed, and stored, etc. “In that back side screen door.” “Don’t slam the gate it makes the dogs bark.” “Don’t fold in a tomahawk— it wrinkles my favorite section.” “Inside the empty milk box.” The list of requirements was long and we met most.
And the absolute biggest and most surprising tips came from unexpected places and people— the old widow in the smallest, poorest household or the family you knew had more kids at home than they could feed were often the biggest tippers every week and at Christmas time (our annual bonus). So we learned to always take the long view about our every customer and to treat each one with uniform respect and courteous service. Because there’s no way to predict who’s really going to be your best customer or your biggest tipper.
Collect your money frequently while the satisfaction with your service is fresh in people’s minds. Our route was so long and large we would have a hard time finishing all the collections every week—but it was big enough that even half the route would give us enough to pay off our papers and a little profit. But nobody likes to get a bill for 5 or 6 weeks of papers. It’s like paying for old news. After having been burned by a few customers who argued that they’d already paid us or didn’t believe our explanation that they owed us 5 or 6 weeks of back costs, we learned to be prompt about collecting. Customers and clients want to know that you’re good stewards of their money and accounts. You only have to eat a few uncollectable bills to learn that harsh bottom line lesson.
I’m struck at how easily I can recall details, even house numbers, individual customer names, good tippers and bad from this first job over 50 years ago. I guess every job has something to teach you, even your first one.