8 things I learned from starting my first business at age 7

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Back in 1974  most kids were expected to earn their own spending money. The lucky ones got an allowance for doing their chores, unlucky ones had to find ways to earn money if they wanted to buy any ‘extras’. Most kids under 13 scoured alleys, ditches, and heaps of garbage for empty pop bottles. At seven I decided to get myself a job as a paperboy for the Richmond Review. 

You were supposed to be ten years old before you could get a paper route but I managed to convince the circulation manager that I could handle the job and its responsibilities. Somewhat reluctantly, he gave me a route in my neighbourhood that had the lowest circulation; 3 streets with only 17 subscribers. 

Unlike today’s free community newspapers that are delivered to everybody, a paper route back then meant you had to sell subscriptions. I was expected to expand my route by adding new customers. The process also meant that I had to collect the monthly payments, do some minimal paperwork, deposit the money at the circulation office, and act as the first point of contact when it came to people wanting information about advertising in the paper, booking classified ads, submitting obituaries, etc.

Delivery of the paper was every Wednesday and Friday. No exceptions, or excuses. There was nobody to cover your ass if you got sick. You got the job done, or they found someone else to take over your route. Zero tolerance.

It was a different time then. Kids were expected to live up to the expectations set for them, even if they were challenging. Of all the kids who had paper routes, I don’t remember any of them ever being helped by their parents, or staying home because of the sniffles. I did my route without fail, which even included delivering the paper in my pyjamas and gumboots when I had chickenpox and again when I got the mumps.

As a paper carrier, you were expected to not only deliver the paper on time, but each subscriber had their own instructions for delivery at their house. These TVs and Movies that show kids throwing the morning paper onto somebody’s front lawn are a complete fabrication.

A couple of my customers were ok with their paper being tossed onto their porch, but most wanted it somewhere specific; under their mat, behind the screen door, pushed through the mail slot, or wedged between the doorknob and the frame. You had to memorize a lot of things.

Subscriptions were $.65 a month, and from that, you earned $.15 – you were allowed 100% of whatever tips you were given so that was the carrot that most carriers looked forward to. 

For my 17 subscribers, I was virtually guaranteed to make $2.55 a month provided everyone paid, and that nobody moved without skipping their bill. If they did, it came out of my commissions. I was responsible for coming up with the full subscription amount to settle my account every month.

Delivering the papers across my route too almost an hour. About 10 hours total once all the other aspects of the job were factored in. That meant I was being paid $.25/hr. The minimum wage in 1974 was $2.50/hr in British Columbia so I was earning 10% of that minimum. I was too young to get an actual job at any kind of store, so my paper route was it,  or I’d have to resort to dumpster diving with my friends to find empty bottles to get the recycling money.

I was an independent contractor, getting paid 100% by commissions. I was quite excited about the fact that the more customers I got to subscribe to, the more I would earn. At 7 years old it felt like a huge opportunity. It took me a month to figure out that I wasn’t likely to get rich, but at least I would have some mad money. 

There were 43 houses on my three street route. With only 17 subscribers, it meant there was $3.90 in potential commissions available to me if I got them all to subscribe to the paper.

This became my #1 goal, and within three months I had my route up to 34 subscribers; doubling my initial month’s commissions. 

I had doubled my business, but I wanted more. I knew by now that the real money was in getting tips. At $.65 per month, customers who tipped me usually gave me $.75. That extra dime made me happy, but two subscribers regularly gave me $1.00 every month so I knew that I could do better.

I asked my mom why people gave tips. I had seen it done on TV, and on the rare occasion that we went to a fancy restaurant, but I didn’t really understand why. She gave me a general idea but suggested I ask a few of my regular tippers what specifically they were happy with.

At the end of the month when I was doing my collections I asked everyone who tipped me that exact question; “what were they were most happy with?” Most said it was because I was doing a great job; the paper was on time, it was never wet, and I always made sure that their gate was closed. I did these things consistently, with every customer so I knew I was missing something.

My two biggest tippers said it was because I was always polite and took an interest in the different things they were doing. It was true, those people were often puttering in their yard, working on their flower garden, etc. My mom was always doing the same in hers, with me as a helper and so it was easy to talk to them about their garden. That led to discussions about various things that were happening in my life.

When I rode my bike around the neighbourhood with my friends, I would always wave to my customers and say hello.

I didn’t have a word for it at the time but now its called customer engagement and/or customer service.

Another thing I figured out was that most of my tipping customers were at home when I delivered the paper. The target time frame for delivery was between 3:30 and 6:00 but I was usually done by 4:30 pm or 5:00 pm. For those who got home after 5:00, I rarely saw them except when it came to collecting at the end of the month.

I changed my delivery schedule so most customers would get their paper between 5:00 pm and 5:45 pm. The subscribers who never tipped previously started tipping more frequently. The result of seeing me more often, and getting to know me a little bit. That year, and every year after, I made more in tips than from commissions.

When customers moved away and new families moved in, I almost always got their business based on the referrals from their neighbours. In most cases, they reached out to me by phone after getting my name and number from the neighbours. 

When I was about 10, a subscriber asked me to help carry a bag of groceries from her car up to the front door. I never expected anything from helping, but doing this small favour resulted in a crisp $1 bill finding a home in the front pocket of my Levi’s. 

I started keeping an eye out for ways I could do more favours for my customers. I wasn’t expecting to get a tip, but I knew that helping people would never be the wrong thing to do. 

Random opportunities to do favours were few and far between, but the idea paid dividends when I saw one of my older subscribers raking leaves in his front yard. 

I asked him if he’d like some help and he replied that he’d pay me $3 to finish a job he hated having to do. At first, I declined the need for payment but he insisted saying that time is the most valuable thing we have so we should be compensated for it. I didn’t really understand, but I dropped my carrier bag of papers and finished raking his front yard right away. Not only did I get $3, but I also got the idea that others might also hate raking their leaves.

I talked to my Mom about using the mimeograph machine at her school to make copies of a flyer that I had written up. I wanted to distribute them to all the houses along my route, as well as to other homes in the neighbourhood. She got permission from the Principal at her school and two days later I had 100 flyers ready for distribution. My only cost was $.54 for the cheapest pale yellow paper I could find at Brighouse Stationary. Pink would have been $.63 but that was too rich for me a the time.

I managed to get fifteen customers from my 100 flyers over the next 3 weeks. At $3 for raking and $5 for raking and bagging, I thought I was a God when every client opted for the $5 combo bundle. Looking back, I probably undercharged, but I made over $75 for what amounted to about 15 hours of work, which was about twice the minimum wage. I dreamt of being Thurston Howell III – if you don’t get that reference, go watch an old episode of Gilligan’s Island.

Leaf raking expanded to include snow shovelling, gutter and window cleaning, and lawn cutting between the ages of 10 and 13. The paper route had become more of a marketing vehicle for the yard services that I was providing on my non-delivery days, and weekends. 

I took a stab at car washing too but realized after the third car that I was too short to get to the roof. It was not something I was able to be good at so I hired an older, taller kid to wash cars for me. He wasn’t focused on doing a good job so I ended up removing car washing entirely.

The summer I turned 13 my next-door neighbour hired me as a construction “gofer”, based on my reputation around the neighbourhood for doing odd jobs. 

He wanted me to assist with the renovations he was doing on his completely gutted and redesigned home. He was a structural engineer by trade with a background in architectural design and he ended up being an amazing influence on me regarding how to see problems, and how to think about finding design-based solutions — I came to realize that everything is designed.

He introduced me to the writings and concepts behind Bauhaus, which lit a fire under me regarding design and art. Not only regarding architecture, but of cities, machines, graphic design, photography, typography, and everyday objects  — form follows function.

Finishing that house took almost 2 years and during that time I was so busy I couldn’t dedicate enough time to my odd job business so I slowly gave it, and my paper route up.

Looking back, my early business experiences set a foundation for how I still approach sales, marketing, design, and business management. Here are 8 key things I still practice.

  1. Sell yourself first. 
  2. Do more than what’s expected.
  3. Helping people pays off.
  4. Sell your strengths, hire your weaknesses.
  5. Know when it’s time to walk away.
  6. Satisfied clients are the best marketing.
  7. Good design solves problems.
  8. Measure twice, cut once.