Ya Gotta Start Somewhere

start2This was supposed to be the first post on this blog, started about 6 years ago.  It has been sitting in draft form since then.  The original idea was a discussion of beginnings.  Starting a new job, pioneering a territory or launching a product.  Though I was working in a medium-sized company at the time, I had done 3 startups in a six-year run, which taught me a lot about starting things.

But, a funny thing happened on the way to the gym last week.

I badged in, headed for the locker room like everyday, but on my way out to the gym floor, I saw this:


Know what those are?  They are rolling racks with hanging clothes on them.  And these?


These are garment bags – specially designed heavy canvas bags designed to hold dozens of hanging garments and, oh yes, an outside zippered pocket for – ORDER FORMS.

I was instantly transported back to the very beginning of my sales career, starting as a traveling salesman (as it was known at the time), selling women’s apparel to stores and chains in a multi-state territory.  On a straight-commission comp plan, paying my own expenses, I traveled 40 weeks per year by car to the four corners of my territory.  Like the Postman, rain, sleet, snow nor any of that other stuff would deter me from the appointments I made because if I didn’t make them (or didn’t close business), I didn’t get paid.

Each week, I would start by loading these heavy bags into my trunk, along with swatch cards, order forms and, of course, my clothing and necessaries.  My database was two shoeboxes of index cards on the front seat of my car.  They consisted of about a thousand index cards, all handwritten with Flair pen.  One box contained cards alphabetized by store name with the address, phone number names and notes.  The other was the same, but alphabetized by City, so I could see what accounts to cold call while I was driving.  Seems rather primitive now, doesn’t it?  But that has given me an understanding of database construction and usage that others don’t have.  They never built one – in analog nor digital format.

As there are four seasons each year, so are there four different groups of clothing (known as releases or lines) each year.  So, the bulk of the selling was repeat to current customers, but of course you always lose some (the vagaries of the economy, retirements, or just fashion), so there was a heavy prospecting burden while servicing current accounts.

I came to this job from 5 years teaching instrumental music in the public schools, so I had to learn very fast.  Fortunately, I had a head start as my Dad was in this business for 20 years prior to my entry and his taking my sister and me on some of his trips were seminal sales lessons for me.  Many of these are just as valid today as they were back then.

Experience has indeed served as my best teacher, forcing me to learn on the fly (and on my own dime).  Those years spent in the “Shmata” business (Yiddish for rags) gave me a great foundation for everything that has come since:

  • Time and Territory Management
  • Relationship Development/Management
  • Prospecting
  • Objection Handling
  • Crisis Resolution
  • Professional Development
  • P+L, ROI

Fronting sometimes in excess of $500/week in expenses, sometimes 3 months in advance of commission payment, you’ve got to learn as much as you can as fast as you can.  I’ll be sharing posts on these topics this summer.  From the trenches.


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