I was a suburban paperboy in the late Sixties.
Way back then there were no laptops or smart phones, and there was no internet or Google maps. For the homeowners on my paper route, I was the internet.
It all started as a last-minute favor for a friend. His family was going out of town unexpectedly for the upcoming weekend, and he needed someone to deliver the Saturday and Sunday papers for him. He also offered to pay me enough to make it worth my time. We were both in the fifth grade, so I had no idea what my time was worth.
The process and the logistics were all news to me.
At around six o’clock in the morning on Saturday, I had to be at the carport of a designated home to pick up the newspapers from where the Atlanta Journal & Constitution delivery truck dropped them off for all the newspaper boys for that area. I had to use wire clippers to unbundle the papers in the stacks with his number on them. Each paper had to be hand rolled with a rubber band around it. And I was to deliver a paper to each house on a hand-written list of addresses and toss them as close to the front doors as possible. The job sounded easy enough.
That Saturday morning started out fine.
I set an alarm clock for 5:30 am on Friday night, and that gave me time to hop out of bed, splash some water on my face, get dressed, and pedal my bike the three or four miles to the designated pickup location.
I had no idea how I would carry so many newspapers on my bike, so I had to improvise. I used the wires I’d clipped to strap mounds of newspapers all over my fenders, rail, and handlebars and away I went. Saturday newspapers were lightweight, thin, and mostly consisting of news, sports, and a comics section.
I had to follow the list of addresses and a hand-drawn map while riding a bike with shifting a load of newspapers that got less stable each time I pulled out a paper and tossed it. I got home in time to still enjoy my Saturday though, so all was good. Little did I know what awaited me the next morning.
Sunday was a rude awakening…
When I arrived at the house where I was to pick up the papers, it all looked completely different. Instead of a few stacks of bundled newspapers, there were mountains of them. I was not informed about this. Sunday newspapers back then were HUGE because they were the closest thing we had to the internet at the time. Each section of the Sunday paper was bundled separately with wires, and there were about a million sections. I suddenly realized I had an assembly line job to do.
Each newspaper had to be hand-built by collating all the sections in order including the news, the classifieds, the home & garden section, the coupon section, the Sunday comics, the sports section, the classified section, the obituary section, the department store circulars, the grocery store circulars, and countless others. And each paper weighed a ton. It took me all morning to assemble the papers and all day to make the many trips back and forth to the “distribution center” because I could only carry about two dozen papers at a time on my poorly-equipped civilian bicycle. Between the blisters from the wire cutters and the cuts from handling sharp edges, I shed blood and sweat that day.
I can’t recall what my friend paid me, but it wasn’t enough. With my weekend of temp work complete, I was no longer “working for the man,” or in this case, my classmate.
I was born to be a business owner.
A few months later, I heard the word that one of the older newspaper boys was giving up his route. But this time, I was going to be smart about it. If it was going to be my business, I needed to learn how to run it right.
To begin with, I needed a heavy-duty bicycle equipped with twin wire saddle-baskets in the rear and a big wire basket mounted in the front. And I needed money to buy the bike. I was a fifth grader with no banking relations, so I borrowed from my mom.
I bought an industrial-strength gold Schwinn “Typhoon” accessorized with chrome wire saddle baskets in the back and a big wire basket in the front.
Next, I learned that I would also be a purchasing agent because I had to pay the Atlanta-Journal & Constitution for the “wholesale” price of my just-in-time-inventory. An additional duty was that of collections. Part of the job was to hit up each homeowner individually for their subscription fees on a monthly basis and that all had to be kept up in a hand-written record book. While the AJC was busy “Covering Dixie Like The Dew” I had to cover my expenses.
My route was for seven days a week subscribers so I would be getting up at 5:00 am on weekends to deliver morning papers and working after school to deliver afternoon weekday papers. More work for more money, or so one would think.
I accepted all of these terms and conditions and launched my newspaper delivery business with gusto and blind ambition.
Pedaling newspapers for a living is a tough racket.
First of all, in the suburbs of Atlanta, there are hills. Steep hills. Almost everywhere. And even with the heavy-duty bike and cargo baskets, it was a tough slog.
The guy that quit the business before I took it on happen to also live on my route. He was a sleazy teenage character that smoked cigarettes and wore “wife beater” shirts. He stopped me one day during my first month and asked if I had collected his money yet. According to him, I owed him for all the money he hadn’t been able to collect. I wasn’t sure how that made sense, so I didn’t argue the point either way. I just said I’d look into it and keep him posted.
I hadn’t had my little business a full month, and I was supposedly in debt to a shadowy strong-arm collector and was carrying an equipment loan from my mom.
I didn’t have much better luck collecting from some of the deadbeats on the route than my predecessor and felt someone could have at least warned me about all the vicious dogs.
So after about two months, I told the teenager to collect his own damn money. By that time, I had past-due accounts of my own for papers I had purchased and delivered. I was ready to fight about it, and we both knew I was right, so he backed off.
My first business lasted about two years and here’s what I learned:
- I learned about responsibility, accountability, and the value of honest work.
- I learned how much I liked earning my own money to spend however I wanted.
- I learned to have confidence in myself when dealing with vendors, lenders, clients, and dodgy characters.
- I learned history in the making and to take the good news with the bad.
- I remember the shock and sadness of the headlines about the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.
- I also remember delivering the paper the day we landed on the moon. On many historic days when I saw the newspapers land on the lawns, I would think to myself “you’ll remember this.” It was like something out of an old movie where you see the paper spinning before locking in on the front page headline.
- I read the papers I delivered and learned from multiple viewpoints while forming my own opinions.
My job today as a B2B Marketing Agency owner is no cake walk.
But anytime I’m having a tough day, all I have to do is think back to one of those hot and humid days in the summer of ’68, and it suddenly doesn’t seem so bad.
What did you learn from your first business or your first job that you value today?