“Wanna buy some greeting cards?” With sales technique like that, how could I possibly fail? Turns out… thoroughly. Didn’t sell a single card. Or a single seed. Or a single anything else I ever tried selling door to door, after reading about how much money I could make in the back of Boy’s Life. And I tried them all. Well, except Grit. I had never actually seen a copy of Grit, and I had the idea that it might be tough to sell.
I was a kid-sized Ralph Kramden, always pursuing one get-rich-quick scheme after another. But unlike Ralph, I was occasionally successful, which is one of the reasons that I tried selling so many things door to door. Because my first time out had been such a success.
In 1968, I was 6 years old. One Saturday, while my brothers and I were all out with the old man, he made a stop at a craft store and bought supplies for making pot holders. You have to understand that in 1968 this was a new and exciting idea, with most people just using dish towels for the job. There was a small plastic rack, and a bag of double-knit cotton loops. If you were to cut the sleeves of a long-sleeve T-shirt into one-inch sections, allowing the edges to roll up, you would have to same kind of loop. You would stretch the loops across the rack, hooking them on the teeth on either side, and then weave loops through from the other direction. To finish, you would loop the ends together all the way around, with the last loop providing a way to hang the pot holder from a hook. Together with us, he made four of them.
And they worked. They were a real, functional product. You could pick up hot things out of the oven without burning yourself.
The old man, having fulfilled his duty as the mighty hunter by providing his family with pot holders, forgot about it and went back to reading the paper. I quietly appropriated the rack and remaining loops for my own purposes.
The following Saturday, I requested a stop at the craft store, and with a 51¢ investment, I went into business. I had to divulge my plan, but the old man was always fairly indulgent when it came to us trying to make money.
There were enough loops in the bag that I had bought that together with the leftovers, I made five pot holders, in various colors and patterns. The old man bent a coat hanger into a giant safety pin that I could hang them on to carry them and display them. I had 12¢ in each one, and I priced them at a quarter.
They sold like hotcakes.
(Did I mention I was extraordinarily cute when I was little. I actually peaked at about 5.)
Every week I was back in the craft store, buying more and more loops, as I worked my way around the block. If they didn’t like the current selection, I would make them to order on color and pattern to match their home décor, at no extra charge. I very quickly realized that if I got the mom to the door, I was golden. Not that the dads didn’t buy them too. I was averaging close to two units per house all the way around the block, until I went out of business.
You see, I wasn’t allowed to cross the street.
But I made more than $6, so for a long time after that I was always looking for the next thing that I could sell to people. I didn’t realize why I had been successful.
And then, one spring morning in the year I was in 5th grade, it happened. A carnival came to town.
This was not a scheduled carnival. Any kid in town could have told that there are carnivals on July 4th, and for the annual Tomato Festival. But not only were they setting up, but they were setting up within actual view of our front porch, on the field where we played two-on-two tackle football. But the true horror of the situation was that I only had a nickel. A carnival not 100 years from my front door and all I had was a nickel.
I was desperate. But inspiration struck, and I was hit with a sudden truth that led me to discover the money tree: The entire world is filled with people who have money, and all you have to do is figure out how to get them to give it to you. And then I remembered making a couple of dollars the previous winter shoveling snow, and realized that some people must hate cutting grass as much as they do shoveling snow. Five minutes later I was on my bike a couple of streets over where I could be anonymous, riding up and down looking at the grass. I picked out four houses and started knocking on doors.
Late that afternoon, when the carnival opened, I had $7 in my pocket. $7! Rides were a quarter, hot dogs were a quarter, and I had $7! Before the night was out I was buying my friends ride tickets. I even got a pack of nudie playing cards out of the claw machine. Only took me two tries.
After that I never had trouble making money. The summer I was 11 I had four jobs and was making over $40/week. I had the paper route, I was cutting three lawns per week (I eventually had my own lawn mower, a rebuilt wreck from my uncle’s farm), I was doing janitorial work at the local Dairy Queen 5 mornings a week for $1/hr, and what is probably the worst job I’ve ever had, umpiring little league baseball, both tee ball and minor league (8-10) fast pitch games.
Don’t get me wrong; the hardest part of umpiring tee ball is trying not to laugh. Kid comes up to the plate, swings for the fences and misses the ball completely over the top on his first two swings. I ask him if he wants me to raise the tee, he says yes and I do it, and then on his third swing he aims where he should have the first two times and knocks the tee out from under the ball. Five more kids do the exact same thing, and there’s the inning. But it was on those rare occasions when a kid would actually hit the ball that things got really interesting.
Little Bobby comes up to the plate, and to the amazement of everyone present, smacks the ball deep, deep, deep into right field, by which I mean it actually crossed the baseline into the outfield. As one, the entire opposing team takes off running after the ball like a flock of ducklings. In the meantime, Bobby starts running for third base. People in the stands are yelling to him, telling him that he’s going the wrong way; Bobby looks over to them as he’s running and waves. Hi, Mom!
The first of the defenders reaches the ball, scoops it up and throws a frozen rope to the catcher. Unfortunately, the catcher is standing right next to him and the ball rolls into the infield. And nine little ducklings turn and run after it again. Meanwhile, Bobby is rounding third, on his way to second.
By the time the mighty ducklings catch up to the ball again, somewhere in the infield, Bobby is pulling into first base. Through mass intimidation they manage to hold him at first, and I make my call on the play.
“I don’t know… safe?”
Doesn’t really matter. It’s not like the next kid is going to get a hit.
Minor league, with the older kids was no fun at all. You’re umpiring a fast pitch baseball game by yourself from behind the plate, not only calling balls and strikes, but trying to make calls all over the field from that vantage point. There are forty parents in the stands, and at least half of them are pissed off after every call. And if you’re as bad an umpire as I was, frequently the opinion will be unanimous.
Hardest three bucks I ever earned in my life.
But that’s how the money tree works. You can try selling them things, but the surest answer to the question of how to get people to give you their money is by doing the work they don’t want to do themselves. Or can’t do themselves. Or hate doing themselves.
You know the kind of work I’m talking about. The crappy work. What did you think the money tree was fertilized with?