I got into selling at the age of 10. No, it wasn’t your kiddie-pity lemonade stand. It was a true capitalism. And I fell in love with it.
Here’s how I got started. Do you remember Thundercats from the 80s? The amazing cartoon that had every child (and adult) hooked? So did everyone in my class in 5th grade. So there was this guy who got his hands on a whole lot of Thundercats sticker books which he had no idea on how to sell. Being the entrepreneur 5th grader I was, I bought the first batch of books from him and sold it at a decent profit. To my baby brother. He was delighted. Yes, nothing like a 6 year old getting his hands on his favourite cartoon character merchandise for the first time. And I was on a high too, albeit I had sold my first product to an unsuspecting 6 year old for cash and an extra stash of chocolate spread.
And then it snowballed out of control. Every kid in my class wanted it. It didn’t matter if I hiked my price. If I was late on delivery. They paid. And paid up front. I became an instant celebrity. The “book guy” as I was known. Everyone wanted it. Only I had it. They paid what I asked because they couldn’t get it from anywhere else.
It was too easy. And it was. Like every peer of mine was an eager 6 year old burning to get his hands on something I had. I was only 10.
Building on my success, I decided to expand. Yup. Next year, fancy fountain pens were all the rage. The girls wanted em. The boys wanted em. Almost everyone was sporting one. So, by natural logic, the super celebrity book guy got in the pen business. The result?
I failed. Miserably. Very few bought from me. I had to struggle to move inventory. I cut prices, and they still didn’t buy. I put out special offers and that didn’t get them excited. I spoke to as many people as I could and as many times as I could, and that only annoyed them. I tried everything I knew at the age of 11 about moving inventory, and I couldn’t. So, I started the blaming the customers first. Yup. Those cheap bas%^#&s! Dont wanna fork out a measely 2 bucks for a quality pen. When I was done dumping heat on my buyers, I started hating the product. Yup, it was no good. I taught myself early that in the face of failure, blame everyone else except your self.
I didn’t have a clue what was happening to me. Hey, I was 11. My customers were 10 years old. Not exactly the ideal bunch to give you constructive feedback. But I knew something was wrong. Why did I fail so miserably today when I was riding the wave only a year ago. I closed up shop. And went back to doing what I was supposed to do as a student: study. I was mortal again. I was plunged back to Krypton. That feeling stayed within my little pre-teen heart for a long time to come.
Today, after studying marketing and sales for over 15 years, I knew what happened. And I smile when I think about it. It’s simple. In the first case of selling sticker books, I operated in a market with no competition. Only I had the product. I controlled prices. I could get away with lousy customer service and being a jerk. I could tell them I was low on stock and they should check with me next week. I could do whatever I wanted. I owned the market. There was nobody my customers could go to. You see…my customers didn’t love me. They loved my product. And the only place they could get it from was me. Period. Heck, if a baboon was selling it instead of me, they would go to that simian and do business with it.
However, my pen venture was different. By the time I opened shop, there were established competitors selling the same (and sometimes better) product at the same price. I wasn’t selling anything new or exciting. Customers knew they could get it from a dozen other places. So started to compete on price, and that didn’t help either. When I could no longer undercut my fellow class mates on their rates, I started dishing out “buy one pen get one free” which made me sound desperate. And that still didn’t line my pocket with green. Customers had choice. And I was just another option. Not the ONLY option.
What did I do? Toughen up? Get aggressive? Better customer service? Heck no. I got out of the game, but not before blaming the “stupid” customers and the “thieving, lying, unethical” competition that had forced an honest entrepreneur like me out of business.
Let a 10 year old tell you: don’t compete. Create new markets. Don’t become just another guy selling another product to a group of people who know they can get it from ten other places. You will be a nobody competing against a somebody (market leader). And even if you do become the big shot market leader, you will always be on the defensive against newcomer usurpers who will fight you on price, customer service, quantity etc. Imagine the toothpaste or soap business and you get the idea.
Now think about Google, iphone, twitter, Youtube and all other products that are crazy successes. Why? Two reasons:
1). These products changed people’s lives
2). They created new markets and had no competition. Its always easy to come first in a race if you are the only one who is running.
Do you really want to get in a race and compete with 12 other super juiced runners? Really? Think of all the things you will have to do just to keep up.
You could just stroll yourself to success if you were the only one selling a life changing product. It wouldn’t matter if you were late to the finish line, would it?
Don’t feel bad if you got schooled by a 10 year old’s experience. I did too. And that has shaped my life ever since.