, Derry, New Hampshire

May 2, 2013

Column: How to not succeed in business without really trying

John Edmondson
Derry News

---- — One early Sunday morning recently, I noticed a car pull into my driveway. Its occupant, a middle-aged man, opened his door and tossed my newspaper, Frisbee-style, onto the porch. It landed with a pronounced “thud,” and then he was off. I watched as he repeated that ritual at several other stops down the street.

It occurred to me that this guy is yet another sign that the times they are a-changin’. Delivering newspapers used to be a kid’s first taste of working for a living. Today it’s a second or third job for adults, a way to make ends meet in an economy that continues to struggle.

I was not as excited as my mother when I got my paper route because it was her idea, not mine. She’d decided it was time I learned some responsibility and the value of a dollar, and I was learning neither watching old “Superman” episodes and playing endless games of Wiffle ball with the O’Brien boys next door.

I suspect my mother sensed early on that her youngest son was no budding titan of industry, but instead a budding slug who might end up, if she wasn’t careful, taking up permanent residence in her recently refurbished basement.

My mom insisted that I talk to my other next-door neighbor, a non-O’Brien if there ever was one. I guess he was 14 or 15 at the time, but he seemed much older to me, a real Junior Chamber of Commerce type. He was ready for the world of high finance, so he was more than willing to pass along his paper route to me.

I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I’m a morning person. I had all day to not look forward to my new job delivering an evening newspaper, the Northern Virginia Sun.

It was, as usual, a suffocating summer in Falls Church, Virginia. My bicycle had a faulty chain, and it always seemed to disengage at the peak of a hill, tipping me sideways and spewing newspapers across the street. The effortless flick of the wrist while pedaling, that technique I’d seen so many young actors execute in Disney movies, eluded me.

If I remember correctly, Wednesday was collection day, and there were anxieties associated with it. Simple arithmetic was not my forte, so I practiced long and hard making change, my mother playing the impatient customer. Fortunately, the amount due was a round figure so higher mathematics weren’t required.

Some people never answered their door. I briefly wondered how they paid their bill, but then my thoughts formed this simple fantasy — if everyone blew me off, it would make my job a whole lot easier. One customer — I dubbed her “Shuffles” — was an ancient woman who always answered my knocks. I had time to read her paper cover to cover in the interval, but the wait was worth it. A $1.50 tip was special back in the day.

A local funeral parlor was on my route, and to this day I wish, just once, that I’d had the initiative to somehow get inside that building. I was asked to go to a side door, in the back, where I suspected all the ghoulish activity took place. I’d ring the bell, and a nattily-attired gentleman opened the door halfway, and always positioned himself to block me from viewing the cool stuff. A “Six Feet Under” moment was never to be.

A born salesman I am not, so when a new subscribers contest got underway, I didn’t ring strangers’ doorbells, I sought refuge in the O’Brien’s rec room, where I played pool and watched a kindred spirit, Wimpy, offer to gladly pay for a hamburger Tuesday that he wanted to eat that day. When the newspaper’s sales manager literally came looking for me, I was nowhere to be found.

Or so I thought. My younger sister, Jan, took over the route, and displayed the kind of marketing skills that would later make her a Girl Scout cookie tycoon.

But Harvard Business School was not in Jan’s future either. Today she’s a fine guitarist and a middle school music teacher. Some of us just aren’t cut out to be venture capitalists.


John Edmondson is a teacher in Hampstead.