What My Childhood Job Taught Me About Running a Business

Your first job matters. Here are six reasons why.

Everyone has had that classic childhood job.

The job might seem unglamorous, tedious, and even menial in nature. At the time, we did it for gas money, or an extra buck to take out a date. But these jobs--where we were overworked and underpaid--often teach us a lot more than we realized at the time.

My childhood job was cleaning pools.

I may not have known it at the time, but maintaining pools when I was a young, new businessperson is what cemented many key business principles I have lived by throughout my life. Here are a few of them.

1. Know your customers better than they know themselves. The phrase "The customer's always right" may be true, but there is a better one to operate by: "The customer's needs become my needs." Running a pool cleaning business required me to assess the problem, understand it and make it a point to remedy the issue. Because the longer it goes on, the harder the task becomes - or worse yet - you can lose the customer entirely. Knowing customers and their needs, and anticipating what they will need in the future, is just as much about attracting new customers as it is retaining current customers. That's Business 101.

2. Urgency is currency. We live in a progressively demanding time. When people want something, they expect it fast. I learned early on that if you don't get back to customers quickly, they will find someone else to do the job. In the Northeast, we have a very short swimming season. When there is sunshine, people want to be able to swim - which means when they call, you better jump. Running a business means being aware that every customer is on a schedule and it is your job to ensure the customer's taken care of promptly. Running a business means profit and deficit are usually a matter of prompt action or inaction. High-ranking customers are no different than any other customer: They want what they want when they want it.

3. Know the system and its demands. I learned that a body of water is very delicate and difficult to keep clean. Any part of the system fails, and you have a pool that turns green. A business is no different: It has lots of parts that must work well together and cannot handle too much stress before the system fails. A business with too much focus on the present and not enough on the future is not a healthy one. It is tempting to put off that necessary maintenance work because it seems inconvenient. But, before long, that perceived "inconvenience" becomes a real problem, and a person is left with a very powerful thing called regret.

4. Assess the cost of maintenance. An average-sized swimming pool holds about 20,000 gallons of water. As such, it requires constant maintenance. Running a business entails offsetting unnecessary costs - and the cost of maintaining something that works is much less than the cost of replacing the entire thing. We do not approach a swimming pool and dump junk into it before diving right in expecting a good swim. And yet, we do that with our bodies and minds and, oftentimes, with our businesses.

5. Better inputs yield optimal outputs. Cleaning a pool requires several components: brushes, skimming nets, filters, chemicals and treatment compounds. Deciding to skim, but not add cleaning chemicals to a pool only addresses the literal surface level need while ignoring the bigger issue. Running a business is no different: A better set of inputs yield a better output. Hiring good employees, making smart business decisions, understanding the nuances of the day-to-day tasks - these all play a part in being successful. Pay attention to everything, even the finest little details.

6. Take pride in the work. Aristotle said, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." Cleaning pools for a living might not seem like a dream job and, in many ways, it wasn't. But I took pride in my work. I took care of my cleaning supplies, paid attention to my schedule, made myself available, and did not cut corners no matter what job I was doing. The same is true with running a business: We are a reflection of the work we put in or don't put in. I learned that to run a successful business I had to take care of my work and the people who work with and for me. Running a business means always taking pride in your work - and not forgetting that it represents you.

That first job is where we learn the reason work is called work. At that first job, you trade your time, energy, and efforts for dollars. Some of the most valuable lessons are the hardest ones. At the end of the day, reflecting back on that first job is essential to running a business. Running a business can force an individual to recall what it feels like to have very little (if anything at all). Great leaders have walked a mile (or several thousand) in someone else's shoes and in a world driven by decisions and dollars, experience - good and bad - is a vital asset.

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