In my mid-teen years, I delivered the Maine Sunday Telegram. 65 or 70 customers made a good-sized route for a teenage girl on a bicycle. It had been my brother’s route and following my mother’s sales techniques, he had expanded the size of the territory about 30 percent before turning it over to me. I wasn’t interested in the sales contests; I just wanted the steady employment. I was always saving money for something — a new bicycle or a trip to the Maine Mall.
I learned a lot from slinging papers. Customer service and expectation management (“the papers will be late this morning”) were just two. The most important thing I learned, though, was the financial management of the business. From Sunday delivery day through Wednesday, I would collect money from my customers. On Thursday, the circulation manager, Mr. Joly, would come to our house and pick up the money I owed the Telegram for the papers sold. The difference between what Mr. Joly needed and what I collected was my profit.
Earning a little cash was great and I liked being able to spring for candy bars and potato chips at Chuck’s Superette now and then. I wasn’t a financial wizard. In the very beginning, I made a few mistakes, bought a few too many candy bars and overleveraged myself. One Wednesday night after rolling quarters, I came up short with the money for Mr. Joly and I had to tell my mother. She asked what had happened.
“Did you lose the money?”
No, I didn’t lose the money. Then she asked to see my collection book. She paged through my records and after a searching audit made the diagnosis I had been dreading.
“You’ve been shirking your responsibilities at collecting.”
Yep, I’d been shirking. I don’t know why, but I hadn’t felt like collecting that week. She went to her desk and came back with the cash to cover the bill. She wasn’t very happy with me, though, and the implication was that it wouldn’t happen again.
She outlined a plan for financial responsibility and although I didn’t adopt quite as exacting a strategy as she proposed, (“every customer, every week!”) I developed a “collecting routine.” Using basic math, I calculated the minimum number of customers I needed to collect from and I ALWAYS collected from this subset. I knew which customers tipped and I’d work that into my calculations, too. Once I hit the minimum, the rest could be done based on my desired cash flow.
Knock, knock, knock.
“Hi, I’m collecting for the Sunday paper.”
Never again did I shirk my responsibilities to the Maine Sunday Telegram.
I gave up my paper route in high school, but to this day I have dreams about shirking my responsibilities. Like my father and his “last night I dreamed I was at the mill” dreams, mine go like this:
“Last night I dreamed I didn’t have enough money for Mr. Joly and I couldn’t figure out who owed for the paper.”
I hear the rooster crowing from the farm next door, so I’ll spare my readers a long lecture on personal responsibility and self-sufficiency. The rooster always delivers.