Lessons learned about business as a kid

Apr 16, 2023

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You can learn something from every new experience, so don’t lose the sense of curiosity and wonder you had as a kid.

Like many of our readers, I have worked most of life. It started with my father assigning me jobs when I was as young as 6 or 7 years old. I had to do things like empty all the trash cans in the house, pick up litter and sticks in our yard (our family’s home was on a big corner lot on the same street as the high school and a quick shop and those kids could litter), and edging the curb and sidewalk with a hatchet.

Lessons from this early experience included learning that while those chores weren’t a lot of fun, I didn’t want to suffer my dad’s wrath! But I also learned that the soda bottles I picked up were worth two cents and, occasionally, my oldest brother would throw his pennies away in his bedroom trash can and I could fish them out. I could make enough money to go to Swiftway to buy cheap candy.

Then when I was 8 or 9 years old, I started cutting lawns. Not just ours, but eventually I had seven yards to do and I made about $27 or $29 per cutting cycle. That was pretty good money for me, but a lot of work. Some yards I had to push my mower more than half a mile to get to. That experience taught me that I had to keep a schedule because if the lawns got too high I would have to cut them twice to look decent, and I wanted to keep my customers happy. I also learned to maintain my equipment, and that taught me how to work on small engines.

Along the way I started my own venture. It started with inheriting one of my older brother’s bicycles, a Schwinn Varsity 10-speed. As soon as I got it, I took it apart and painted it metal flake purple. That then led to picking up old bikes for free or a few bucks, repainting them and repairing what was wrong, and selling them on our street corner for a profit. A few years later, I expanded my efforts to include mini-bikes and small motorcycles. There I learned that you made money when you bought (by not paying too much!), and that it was best to tell buyers whatever was still wrong with what I was selling so they wouldn’t be upset with me later. I also learned how to negotiate on selling price (I didn’t; I set a fair price and stuck to it).

Then, when I was about 12 or 13, I got a job working at the local bike shop down the street. I learned so many lessons there, I couldn’t list them all. One thing was not to be too fast fixing flat tires or the people couldn’t justify paying us $1. “Send them away for an hour or so,” my boss would tell me. “Don’t let them see you can fix their flat in a few minutes.” I also learned more about selling, as some folks would bring in bikes that were so beat up, I would point out how they’d be better off with a new bike. Then we would get their old one on trade at a low price. And eventually I got an employee to manage – a kid a couple years younger than me who I could have do my grunt work, like taking bikes apart and sanding the frames for painting. He was pretty lazy and I learned that I had to keep an eye on him to get anything done.

When I was 16, I went to a bigger and better shop that I could only get to by car. My first car was a 1950 Ford. I drove over there and got an interview with the store manager who told me he didn’t have anything for me. But when he saw my car in the back of the store – one that was the same as his car in high school – he hired me. There I learned all kinds of lessons – like how to work with a bunch of other people – some of them older but who knew less than I did about bikes. I also learned “upselling,” so when someone bought a bike I would sell them a bunch of accessories along with it as well. My boss loved that.

I could go on here but my point is this: Life is a journey. It’s a constant learning experience. I am still learning new stuff every day because I put myself in new situations constantly. I have many new (and old) jobs and ventures that I am involved with. Every experience I have makes me better at the other things I do. Sometimes progress doesn’t come in a straight line. The detours we take and the rabbit trails we go down all potentially hold valuable lessons for us. So keep trying new things and putting yourself out there. And don’t lose your sense of curiosity and wonder that you had as a kid by letting yourself fall into a rut where you just go through the motions.

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at mzweig@zweiggroup.com.

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.