Working for "THE MAN"

The first and last job I would ever hold was as a junior forest ranger for the Ministry of Natural Resources in Cochrane, Ontario. I was 16 at the time. Cochrane is known for its polar bears and being the birthplace of hockey player and legendary donut purveyor Tim Horton.

What I thought would be an opportunity to commune with nature (I was a young environmentalist) and plant trees ended up being 3 summer months of paving roads, cutting trees for unnecessary trails, and servicing outhouses in remote provincial parks. The RCMP and health officials also quarantined our barracks for one week when a mysterious illness spread amongst our group and hospitalized two of my crew. No one ever explained to us what the infection was; some thought salmonella from the small kettle lake we swam in, others were convinced it had something to do with the ball lightning that hovered near our campsite. Witnessing the latter, a very rare form of lightning, was by far the highlight of that summer.

My First Company

The next summer, when I was 17, I decided it would be more gainful to work for myself. A family friend informed me of an opportunity to erect a-frame construction signage for a homebuilder in Toronto. The signs, which were erected on public street corners to guide prospective home buyers to development sales centers, could only go up on the weekend or city officials would confiscate them. While most only saw unappealing hours - signs had to be up by 8am Saturday morning and taken down Sunday evenings after 6pm - I sensed opportunity for what would soon become Signs Up!, my first company.

Up until this point developers would generally have one of their construction crew setup the signs. Inevitably this would not work out well - the workers didn't like the hours or the menial nature of the job. Signs were poorly erected which resulted in fewer prospective purchasers reaching the sales center. I quickly realized the problem was common to every homebuilder in the Greater Toronto Area.

Signs Up! quickly grew into a thriving niche business with monthly revenues approaching $20,000 before I sold the company to my employees 2 years later. It was with this early venture that I acquired a basic foundation of skills that I would later build upon in future ventures. From managing older employees (I was 17, my drivers were in their early 30s) to learning of the dangers of well-intentioned publicity (my first press coverage, an article on my business in the Toronto Star, resulted in no new customer wins and a legal threat that forced me to change my company name - that was not the outcome I had expected!).

What was the most valuable skill acquired? How to cold call. I spent countless hours cold calling hundreds of builders - it was the definition of trial by fire. In time I would be able to artfully circumvent secretaries and deliver a perfected telesales pitch to promote Signs Up! I quickly learned that my pitch needed to be malleable to improve my closure rates - a hard sell for the type-As and a soft sell for the type-Bs, a cost-savings pitch for the smaller builders and an operational-efficiency pitch for the larger builders. A complimentary skill developed during this formative period - the ability to effectively control the direction of a call. In time, this would end up being an equally if not more important ability.

Going After a Larger Market

In 1994, at 18 years of age, I was ready to take on a larger challenge. I deferred my final semester of high school (which I later completed - I do have some formal education!) to run my next venture - a play in the then recently deregulated Canadian natural gas market. I operated a marketing organization that took advantage of the newly competitive market that offered consumers and businesses a choice from which producer they purchased their natural gas. This experience afforded me the opportunity to acquire two new core skills:

(1) From a sales perspective, I now primarily sold corporate accounts on a face-to-face basis, and I also provided sales instruction to large groups of people. These new sales skills rounded out my sales abilities, which had previously consisted primarily of telesales.

(2) From a management perspective, I learned how to scale an organization quickly. Granted, this was primarily a commission-only sales organization with high turnover, but I scaled it with the assistance of a friend who I invited into the business to a fairly steady 80+ reps in less than a year.

This business also brought with it accounting headaches (the first of many to come, watch for future posts ;-) that are inevitable for a transaction-intensive business run in a startup modality. In the interest of brevity, I'll fast forward to the outcome of this business:

JR: "Mom, Dad, I've decided not to go to university. I'm making good money. I'm going to stick with this."

Parents: "That's not your decision to make."

JR: "[attempting to use sales skills to manipulate parents]"

Parents: "You can always make money, but you have only one opportunity to experience university life in a new city when you are young" (I had previously chosen McGill in Montreal).

Parental Pressure Prevails

My parents exerted a bit more pressure and I conceded. I could blame it on my filiopietistic nature, but I did see the wisdom in their advice, and it ended up being one of the better decisions that I have had to make under duress. My partner took over the business and I traded a six-figure income at 19 for textbooks and bitter Montreal winters.

Of course, that didn't last for long. I'll save what happens next for my upcoming posts on my technology ventures that I started during my first year in McGill.

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