I was reading a post from telecom engineer Eva Smith earlier this week. In it she mentioned that her mother made cakes at home to make extra money for the family. Mi mami also made birthday, quinceañera and even wedding cakes (!!) so I was smiling and recalling.
Suddenly, a memory from 4th grade popped into my head. My mother was sitting at our kitchen table which was configured more like a factory station during the day while we were at school. She was wrapping fishing rods, which meant attaching the guides (the circles that hold fishing line for you non-fisherman –see photo right) by applying colorful thread to hold them and then lacquer to shine them up.
My sister and I, the two oldest children of four kids at the time, learned to use the pedal-operated thread-wrapping machine (essentially a giant sewing machine but the thread wraps around the rod instead of a needle into fabric) and helped my mom continue production as she made dinner. I didn’t know it then, but my mother was teaching me how to bring in revenue for the family while being home with her children.
From that production experience in my kitchen, I got the idea to apply the pretty colorful thread to my plain yellow #2 lead pencils. If you can’t quite imagine that, I’m realizing as I write this that those pencils I decorated looked a lot like the military ribbons on my Air Force uniform as seen here; odd, but true. As soon as I took my jazzed-up pencils out of my school bag, immediately I heard, “Wow! Where did you get those cool pencils?” Yep, you guessed it. At the age of nine I replied with, “My mom has special equipment at home to do this. I can wrap pencils for you for only $0.25 each. How many would you like me to decorate?”
As word spread of this unique pencil customization service throughout the school, I begin taking orders in my school notebook—number of pencils they provided, what color combinations they wanted, deposit collected, balance due, etc –all while applying my math skills. I also remember sitting down with my dad and creating a pricing table, offering volume discounts for wrapping pencils and special pricing for decorating entire packages of pencils. We even added a service where we would provide the pencils instead of my classmates having to provide them to me. I remember one Sunday while watching a Denver Bronco game on TV that I decided to start wrapping pencils in orange and blue sometime during halftime; I sold all 24 of those babies on Monday!
During that year, I learned many important business principles before school, after school, during recess and at lunch time.
- a new innovative idea is almost naturally exciting; if it truly stands out from everything else (as my special pencils did), you’ve successfully captured your prospective customer’s attention.
- asking for the business is the first key skill to confidently master. Nothing would have happened had I not made that first offer to the first client.
- when you’re offering something special to people, they naturally share that information with many others; they’re happy to tell others and feel proud that they found you first. I know I do that when I find a particularly unique product or service. I tell people!
- on-time delivery matters; “underpromise and overdeliver” came early for me. I loved telling my friends that I would have their pencils done by the end of the week, then surprising them with a Wednesday or Thursday delivery. That made them so happy and my reputation benefited.
- repeat business is a good thing. Kids go through pencils quickly (or lose them); I had lots of repeat business. I even got orders from teachers, who wanted to have cool pencils too.
- cash transactions ROCK!…so easy.
I don’t recall for how many years my mom did that work but one day my mom was asked to return the fishing-rod-wrapping machine to a store 30 minutes away, something about the business owner changing to a different type of piece work for his in-home workers. The next project became counting and packing fishing hooks in bags, ten per bag then stapling the branded cardboard on top. It was easy work and by now all four of the kids could count and therefore help with this work. My mother ended up producing much more, making more money for our family and we all saw increases in our weekly allowances.
While it was sad that my pencil-wrapping business suddenly ended, the benefits of the business lessons gained endured AND I learned that I could create new businesses (and I did but that’s another post.) I enjoyed making my own money and coming up with my own ideas to create and sell. I liked that through my own thinking and creativity, I made things that made people happy. I learned very early in my life how to produce unique, differentiated value and how to simply communicate it.
My mom also taught me the most important lesson of all – that it was possible to bring in revenue while being home with her children. She never worked outside the home while we were young. She always found ways to make money while we were at school, while also teaching business skills to the children by involving us in appropriate ways.
At this point in my life, after nearly a decade of military service and a decade of corporate marketing and always working globally, I want exactly what my mother wanted: to contribute to the family revenue stream, to teach my children life-long business skills and to be there to pick them up after school and help with homework as needed. It’s a heck of a thing to admit to myself because for so many years, I have believed I was trying my best to diverge away from how Mami did things. Suddenly, the wisdom of her choices is obvious to me. It’s humbling and gratifying to connect these dots…a lovely benefit of the mid-forties experience!
Although I’m going about it very differently in starting my own company and creating unique and differentiated literature to put into a national and global distribution, I am realizing that I’ve always been prepared for this. And, like my mother, I love to involve my children in the family business. From inspiring a children’s book series to assisting in a piece of the order fulfillment process, all three of my kids are learning about creating value and serving customers at a young age. Instead of counting fishing hooks as I did, they count books that came out of Mommy’s brain (and imagine themselves as authors too.) Instead of packaging hooks in bags with a fishing equipment brand, they package books in boxes with OUR publishing brand. And instead of pencil design, they’re learning 21st century skills like blog, app and web design. And the all-important skills of communicating the unique value and asking for the business…if you’ve seen them with me at events, it’s obvious they’ve got that down pat.
Thank you Mami, for the choices you made to do it differently, for having business aspirations (fishing poles, fishing hooks, Tupperware, Princess House, etc), to contribute substantially monetarily in partnership with Papi to bring in the revenue our family needed to live well, for putting your children first and involving them in your business endeavors. Looks like I’m imitating you after all and I know I am blessed for it, as are my children.