The first “real” job I had after college was sales associate in the sporting goods department of a large downtown department store. It was the type of store that every large city had back then and very few have now, six stories high and family owned, with an amazing variety of merchandise.
For a kid who loved sports, the sporting goods department was the ultimate candy store, selling everything from toboggans to polo mallets. There were about a half-dozen sports that I understood pretty well, and at least a dozen about which I knew next to nothing, but I was eager to learn.
In order to advise a customer on what sort of basketball to buy, or what type of string to use in a tennis racket, a salesperson needed to find out who the user was going to be, how often he or she would be playing, and on what kind of surface. Information coupled with product knowledge generally led to a logical choice, and I rarely found price to be much of an issue. The right product simply cost what it cost.
Customers were often very happy to have found a salesperson who cared as much about the product selection as they did themselves, and would tell me how much they appreciated my help. Positive reinforcement made it the best job ever, and I suspect that you experience the same satisfaction on a daily basis.
That job was so much fun that I hardly cared about the fact that I was barely making enough money to cover parking and lunch. If I hadn’t gotten laid off, I probably would have stayed there forever, or at least until the place went out of business.
But I did get laid off, and eventually found my way into publishing, which had been my intended field in the first place. I was thrilled, but after my experience in retail the publishing business seemed staid and serious. Writing and editing can be lonely work, and rarely feel like play.
Fortunately, the company pushed me from the editorial department into sales and marketing, which was in many ways more rewarding. Business to business selling was not the same equation as retail, and lacked some of that immediate gratification that came from connecting a consumer to a product, but I enjoyed the people, the travel, the challenge of making a sale or finding new prospects. Of course it didn’t hurt that the pay was better as well.
Going into marketing, and later into management, meant that I was moving away from anything I had ever studied in school. Until the company started sending me to seminars and such, it had never even occurred to me to take a business course. That being the case, I had to wonder whether it really mattered at all that I had gone to college.
For many of us, college was a place where you tried to figure out what you wanted to do for a living, and then picked up a couple of credentials that would help get a foot in that door. In terms of actually teaching you to do the job, not so much.
But what about kids who already know what they want to do? My wife is a school administrator who has had several students bring up the fact that neither Bill Gates nor Mark Zuckerberg graduated from college, to which she replies, “You aren’t Bill Gates.”
That’s a good point, but it’s also worth noting that both of those people actually left Harvard during their sophomore year because they had created technology that would change the world. Both intended to return, but were overtaken by their careers.
Once in a great while, you run into an 18-year-old person who has no doubt about what his or her own career path is going to be, and it may not involve college. In my experience, the kids who feel such a calling are often successful in following it, and I would never advise anyone to do otherwise.
For the rest of us, advanced education of some sort is probably a good idea, if not necessarily predictive of future employment. I know that the majority of our readers went to college, but I wonder how many studied something directly related to running an art supply business.
I also know that many of you started up the business you work for yourself, or acquired an existing business and re-created it. In either case, you probably learned the same thing I did, that entrepreneurs can’t really specialize in one particular function, at least for awhile. You do whatever needs to be done, whether you’re good at it or not.
As the company grows you naturally tend to hire people, but the big question you have to answer is about which job functions you are choosing to hire out, and which ones you are keeping for yourself. You can create a hierarchy of tasks, assigning the most important work to the boss, or you can simply keep doing the things you enjoy and get somebody else to do the other stuff.
Some functions may be hard to classify, such as my old job on the sales floor. Although it was considered an entry-level position, and is treated as such by most retailers, it seems to me that the primary point of contact between your business and its customers is pretty significant. Maybe you still devote some of your time to helping customers because you find it rewarding, or maybe you think it keeps you in touch with the art community.
That, by the way, is the reason that I write this column. I don’t always enjoy writing editorials, nor do I think I am always that good at it, but it provides a connection to our readers that is important to me.
About a month ago, an editor on our staff resigned and moved away, leaving us a position to fill. In the past, we simply would have used that person’s responsibilities as the basis for a help wanted ad, but given the rapid evolution of the publishing business in recent years, we thought it might be wise to re-evaluate the job according to the manner in which stories are written, acquired and distributed in 2017.
While we were at it, we decided to ask all the other employees to evaluate their own positions, in terms of the functions they enjoyed, thought they were good at, wanted to do more of, or would rather avoid altogether. Extending the exercise further, we asked them what functions the company should have and doesn’t, or does have and shouldn’t.
This wasn’t an idea we got out of a business book or a management seminar, it simply grew out of a discussion among the managers. We made it clear to everyone that it was intended as a learning experience, and we included ourselves in the drill.
If you haven’t tried such an exercise, I recommend it. Like us, I think you will find some surprises.