The lessons that last

I recently bought a new book, “The Mom & Pop Store: How the Unsung Heroes of the American Economy Are Surviving and Thriving.” Because I have two other books I have to finish before I start this one, I’ve contented myself for now with only reading the introduction, which has sent me down memory lane.

In it, author Robert Spector reminisces about his teen years, during which he worked in his family’s butcher shop. Like the author, my working life began at a mom and pop, though not one owned by my family. In fact, until I graduated from college, all of my employers were mom and pop businesses.

But I didn’t think much about what I had learned or what made those jobs different from the other jobs in my life until now. Looking back, the two most important things I picked up from those small business owners is work ethic and personal responsibility. There are no “hours” when you own your own business. The owners were always there when I arrived and when I left. And they ultimately were responsible for everything that happened in their company, whether they did it or not. It was their name, their reputation. 

I learned that last one the hard way. It was the winter break of my freshman year of college, and I was working for DiBella’s Fancy Fruit Baskets for the first time. What I would eventually learn is that the holiday season is when DiBella’s would make all of its profit for the year … or not. It was by far the most stressful few months for the owner, Jimmy, who ran the business himself the rest of the year, supporting his young family by himself. My job was to manage the store and take fruit and gift basket orders while he made baskets.

It was my first time taking orders over the phone, and in the first few weeks on the job, I forgot to write down some important pieces of information. In one case, I not only forgot to ask a key question concerning the type of basket they wanted, but I also forgot to ask for their phone number. When he realized my error, Jimmy lost his temper, and having never been yelled at like that before, I burst into tears. In the end, we both apologized, and I worked hard to get better at my job. That wasn’t the last tense moment between us – I eventually learned to yell back – but by the end of my second year working the holiday season, Jimmy surprised me with what then seemed a HUGE Christmas bonus: a few hundred dollars. I learned that when things went wrong, the implications were significant, as they were when things went right.

To this day, I take my work – and its impact on my co-workers (and customers) – very seriously. I’d like to hear from you. What was your first job? Did you work for a mom and pop? What did you learn and how has it impacted your work today?

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6 comments

  1. First job was working for a tree & plant nursery. I preppped the earth. planted, cared for, weeded and harvested plants & bushes & small trees for sale.
    Needless to say it was difficult work, especially for a young man of 13.
    It paid 50 cents an hour.
    BUT: it taught me how to work and an appreication for hard work and the results of that hard labor in terms of product produced and, of course, the monetary reward. Basically HOW TO WORK. In the process i gained a real honest to goodness work ethic.
    It was prep for starting a business of my own, working long hours and sacrificing for success down the road. It payed off; it worked, and i still believe there is no substitute for that particular path i experienced. Best, Ed Lofgren

  2. My first job was at a marina in South Portland, Maine. My father ran the marina and he made me head grass cutter, trash picker-uper, head bathroom cleaner as well as being responsible for some of the other less pleasant tasks. Further, I am pretty sure I didn't make any money that summer. However, I worked hard, I learned a ton and overtime, I gained a higher appreciation for the details! I agree with Ed their is no substitution for hands-on, ground up, experience.

  3. Funny, I had the same job at the same exact marina as David, except I got paid double what he did because I was the owners kid. I then got promoted to dock attendant where I had the pleasure of pumping gas and head holding tanks. Seriously though, Liz is dead on, these early jobs help shape and guide you. All too often you see young people given roles they are not suited for or trained for due to their blood lines. Learning and appreciating the value of hard work and money is a great life lesson.

  4. I worked at a small, family owned microbiology lab that did food quality testing primarily. I washed and sterilized glassware and equipment, did lots of odd jobs, building various bits of equipment around the place. My Dad was also a self-employed CPA. I learned to work until the work was done, to pay attention to details, as well as to be sure to take time for family. I also really learned how to treat your employees, with dignity & respect, to get the best out of them.

    I've used all of those lessons in my career, whether self-employed or not.

  5. My first job was an exercise instructor/sales person at Elaine Powers Figure Salons, a small chain in the midwest. My Dad didn't want me to get a job--he said I had my whole life to work, but I couldn't wait for the independence of having my own money. I wasn't qualified for the job at 17, but I listened, learned and sold a lot of memberships to women who believed that those rolling machines were going to get rid of their cellulite! But when it was slow, I cleaned equipment, swept the floor, talked to the women and learned about their lives. I took pride in the salon and in my position--because my parents taught me that hard work was the ONLY way in life. Having had my own business for about 15 years, I still take pride in my company and my position and know that hard work is the ONLY way when there is no one else to delegate or turn to--or blame. I guess I wouldn't have it any other way!

  6. My first job was an exercise instructor/sales person at Elaine Powers Figure Salons, a small chain in the midwest. My Dad didn't want me to get a job--he said I had my whole life to work, but I couldn't wait for the independence of having my own money. I wasn't qualified for the job at 17, but I listened, learned and sold a lot of memberships to women who believed that those rolling machines were going to get rid of their cellulite! But when it was slow, I cleaned equipment, swept the floor, talked to the women and learned about their lives. I took pride in the salon and in my position--because my parents taught me that hard work was the ONLY way in life. Having had my own business for about 15 years, I still take pride in my company and my position and know that hard work is the ONLY way when there is no one else to delegate or turn to--or blame. I guess I wouldn't have it any other way!

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