My mom nudged me at age 11 to become a newspaper carrier. I was about 3 months shy of turning 12, the required minimum age. I thought it was a good idea, I was ready for the world of big people, like the neighbor kid two houses down who was probably 16 then. He was ready to “retire”, and put me in front of his “boss” in their weekly meeting. I guess rules were loose those days, so I got hired despite my underage status. The boss, whose job was to handle all the newspaper carrier boys, would park his car on a corner by the local public school five blocks away from my house, on Mondays at 5:00 pm, and all the carriers would bike there, and we would have our meeting. The main purpose of the meeting was for him to collect our weekly cash payment to him and us to report any new subscribers or un-subscribers, so he could adjust the aggregate number of papers that would be delivered by the big truck to the house that served as “station”. Whichever carrier had the most seniority would have his house as the station. Several hundred newspapers would be delivered each dawn, packed in bundles of 3 dozens each, held together by a wire you had to cut with pliers. Sometimes the paper at the top would get ripped a bit, so there were always a few extras dropped to account for this. I would get up at 5:00 am, get dressed, bike to the station house, and get my share of papers. There may have been 8 of us carriers served by that station.
Weekly subscriptions amounted to $1.20 per subscriber, which we collected. We had to turn in about $1.00 per, and we got to keep the difference as our profit. Since most people paid with a dollar bill and a quarter, and would not ask for the nickel back, we were almost always guaranteed at least a nickel tip from each subscriber each week. I would always stick my right hand in my pocket while holding the dollar bill and the quarter in my left hand, and most invariably the client would say “keep the change”. Some people would hand an extra dime with the quarter, those were the good ones. In about 1 out of 25 or so homes, the customer would wait for the nickel back. Among us, carriers, we had those homes well identified, and we had a nickname for these customers which I will not print here. I was happy. Life was good. I was averaging about $12 per week. A year later my brother joined us. In a few years I was the senior carrier. The station moved to my house.
At some point, a bad apple joined the crew. Large shortfalls of the number of papers started happening. See, if you gained, let’s say, two new subscribers on a week and did not report them, as long as you were not the last boy picking up your papers at the station, you could pocket the whole $2.40 for that week. And the longer you could get away with this, the more money you would make. Under a scenario where everyone was 100% honest, one of the perks of seniority was not having to get up as early to get your papers because they were delivered to your home’s balcony. After the bad apple joined our ranks, I faced the first serious obstacle to my career – I would open my front door at 6:00 am and my brother and I would be the last carriers to pick up, at our own house, but we would be short a good dozen papers. I would have to call for a later delivery of the shortage, which delayed my delivery – especially when school was on – and created all sorts of customer satisfaction issues. We would bring up the problem to our handler on the weekly meeting – somebody was pocketing over $14 of unreported subscribers – but methods to catch the dishonest carrier (a true Judas among us, in our meetings, laughing at our jokes!) – was one of the hardest things anyone could do. This was deception at the highest level, for the first time in my life.
My first attempt at solving the problem was to start getting up earlier – effectively canceling the most valuable seniority perk – to collect my papers before everyone else. After a few weeks of passing on the problem to the next “last guy”, who would in turn come in earlier and earlier to beat me, I was getting up at 3:00 am and waiting next to the door for the truck to arrive. It got really crazy. I had the great idea of borrowing a big wooden toy box that my sisters were not using, installed a padlock on it, and placed it out in the balcony. I waited for the truck the next morning, and asked him to leave the papers due to me in the box, and lock it. My plan worked for about a week, until the thief now turned into a vandal and removed the back hinges on the box and took our papers. The war escalated. I placed stronger hinges, and within a few days, I woke up to find out the box missing. In amazement, I woke up my mom and my brother, informing them of the crime that had just been committed right in our balcony, by someone I knew, but not exactly. This was scary stuff; we had to continue fighting evil with all our might.
That early morning, while we all stood there in disbelief and my mind raced, my gut told me right then and there that evil would want to meet me in the scariest place on Earth. In my 14-year-old mind, I knew exactly where this place was. It was the storm water canal that bordered the backyards of the homes across the street. It was man-made, with concrete walls and bottom, a good 15-20 feet down. It was usually dry or with maybe an inch or two of slightly moving or stagnant water. If you turned the corner from our house, you could get to the bridge where the street crossed it. Since I was a child this bridge over the canal was the source of all my greatest nightmares. I had seen brave kids go down the rebar rungs on the concrete wall after climbing over the concrete railing, and go explore. Some bragged that they had taken their bikes down and travelled blocks and blocks on it. I had dreams of being down there as a wall of water would come crashing on to me as in the collapse of the water walls at the end of the parting of the Red Sea.
Right away, my brother and I biked to the bridge, looked down into the canal, and there it was. The vandal had thrown our empty, wooden box into it. I faced and conquered all of my greatest fears, went down, and with the help of ropes hauled the box up. The following Monday, I relayed the story to our boss. He conducted an aggressive inquiry, akin to an FBI internal affairs investigation, and under what I now assume was severe questioning and using appropriate psychology on the mere children that we were, the culprit confessed, and was let go.
As entrepreneurs, we design solutions to overcome obstacles and get started. We face honest competition eagerly and in creative ways. The system works, when all players are honest. When evil raises its head, we need to fight it. One of the videos I show during our boot-camp qualifies entrepreneurs as being honest, modern day heroes. I think that is always the case. The bad apples hijack our name, but they fall by their own weight at the end, because the majority of the players are honest, and the system works and weeds them out.