Selling books door-to-door. Reflecting on an adventure 20 years ago…

Phil Burgess

20 years ago (July 3, 1999), I stood outside a small, blue house in Modesto, California, a 19 year old student, 5,000 miles away from home. I remember glancing down at my watch. 07:59 am. I was bang on schedule. It was more than 100 degrees. The tarmac was shimmering and I could feel the sweat running in rivulets down my back. My stomach churned and I raised my hand and knocked hesitantly on the door.

A man answered, looking sleepy, dressed in a string vest. It was a Saturday morning and I’d woken him up. I introduced myself nervously, and he answered in Spanish. So I explained again what I was doing, in broken Spanish – “vendo libros para la escuela”. To my surprise, he let me in. 15 minutes later, after a conversation with him through his 8th Grade son who was struggling with math, I walked out with $32 in one dollar bills tucked in by bum-bag (or fanny-pack as they called it in America), a down payment on a Student Handbook. My first success as a door-to-door salesman.

I’d signed up to spend a summer running my own business selling educational books door-to-door with Southwestern Advantage. After an intense week of training in Nashville, Tennessee, I’d flown and Greyhound-bussed it to Modesto, my ‘turf’ for the summer. At the time, I never for one minute thought that it would be the start of seven year adventure that would change me in so many ways, lead to me meeting my wife, help me to graduate from university debt-free and build my character and philosophy on life in ways I’d never anticipated.

That first day, I continued knocking on doors for 13 and half hours.

I called on 60 houses that day. A few people sat down with me and let me show them my books, but no-one bought anything after that first sale. Some people were rude. Sometimes, people just shouted ‘not interested’ through the door. Some were friendly and offered me water or Gatorade. The next day, I spent another 13 hours walking the streets. Someone bought a $20 kids book from me. As I biked home, I calculated my earnings – $9 profit in 13 hours, about 70 cents an hour… I contemplated the 10 weeks I had in front of me, wondering what I’d let myself in for.

“This will be the hardest thing you’ve ever done” they’d told me when I interviewed for the job back on campus.

“30% of people decide in the first few weeks it’s not for them… but if you work hard, have a great attitude and are teachable, you’ll learn skills that will last you a lifetime,” they said. I’d taken this to heart and set myself two goals for the summer:

  1. I wouldn’t quit, no matter how hard it got and no matter what I sold. My parents thought I was crazy for signing up to sell books when my friends were off doing internships with banks and law firms. Even more so when I told them it was 100% commission. But they said I was big enough to make my own mistakes, and figured I could always get another job in the States if things didn’t work out.
  2. I’d sell enough books to win the sales incentive ‘Sizzler’ trip to Gran Canaria, something that was earned by the top 25% of sales people each summer.

I worked 81 hours that week and headed off to my team meeting on Sunday, eager to see how the rest of my team had done in their first week on the book-field (it was 1999, so none of us even had a cell-phone let alone Facebook to communicate through). Ten of us had signed up back on campus. I found out that Sunday that 6 of my team-mates had quit that first week. 2 more left the week afterwards. But there was no way I was going to fly back to the UK and face my Dad and say he was right.

So with my Dad’s face firmly imprinted in my mind as motivation to keep going, I kept working – 80 hours a week for the next 10 weeks. And day-by-day I got better, averaging 3 sales a day from the 30+ presentation that I made. It truly was an emotional roller-coaster. As the summer wore on, I remember looking in windows of families enjoying dinners together and at times being crippled by pangs of home-sickness. It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before (or since). I remember calling my Mum from a payphone one day and hearing Eastenders in the background and breaking down in tears (one of several times I cried that summer)… and then going back to knock on doors. Sometimes I’d sell nothing all day, and then meet the most incredible family at my last call, and they’d invite me in for food after buying a complete set of books and writing me a cheque for the whole amount.

And finally, the summer came to an end. At 8.15pm on the Saturday of my final week, my last day, I sat down with a family who bought $200 of books from me, enough for me to qualify for the Sizzler holiday that I’d been working towards all summer long.

I made $5,000 profit that summer after expenses. I wasn’t a top first year sales-person, but I’d hit my goals, but as I flew back to the UK I vowed that I would never knock on a door again. 

Of course, that’s not quite how things panned out. I signed up to return in 2000… and then again in 2001… and ended up selling books every summer through to 2005, including spending 3 years after graduating as a sales leader recruiting and training others to sell books and working with them on the field.

Over 7 summers I figure I must have spoken to more than 15,000 Americans across California, Illinois, Florida, Virginia and Texas – suburban Mums in MacMansions on golf courses outside of DC, single parents in trailer homes, farmers on tractors, Pentagon officials, Marines and Secret Service Agents who lived near Quantico, baseball players who played for the Houston Astros… I remember chatting with black families who lived in one of the whitest towns in America, conversations about politics and religion, swapping stories with parents who hadn’t graduated from college who were working 3 jobs to ensure their kids got a great education, getting advice from CEOs and multi-millionaires… and being exposed to so many different perspectives on money and education, experiences that helped me to shape what I wanted for my own kids when I had them.

Incredible, crazy memories. I remember standing in a house in the suburbs of Chicago when I heard about the 7.7. bombings in London. And I was knocking on doors in Fredericksburg, Virginia on 9.11 when someone answered their door and said: “I can’t talk right now. Our country’s under attack.” She let me in and we stood aghast as we watched the Towers fall.

Oh, and my wife? I met her on that trip I won to Gran Canaria. I often reflect on how different my life would be had I headed home with the rest of my team at the end of that first week.

So 20 years on, it’s hard for me not to be a little nostalgic.

There’s not a week that goes by that I don’t draw on a lesson learned through selling books. There are a few things that have really stuck with me:

  1. Control the controllables: Our mantra every summer. Focus on the things you can control and don’t waste your emotional energy on things that are beyond your control – the person who shouts at you because they’re having a bad day, the sale that falls through, the stolen bike, the car puncture… You can choose how you respond to these situations. I’ve sat in training sessions with executives who have been blown away by this idea… and I’m so grateful that I learned in back in sales school in 1999.
  2. Don’t be afraid to forge your own path: After my third summer, I decided I should get a ‘proper job’ upon graduation and I was lucky enough to get an offer from Procter & Gamble. But then I thought twice, and decided to miss my graduation ceremony and go back for a fourth summer. My parents were mortified! They’d not spoken for the best part of ten years after their divorce, but his was a big enough deal for them to call a crisis meeting. I stuck with my guns. That summer I printed out Robert Frost’s poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ and stuck it on my dashboard to remind me that I had chosen to take the ‘path less traveled’. I can still recite it verbatim 20 years later. It wasn’t until after my final summer when my Dad met some of the 55 students that I’d recruited and mentored through their summers that he finally got what I did and why I did it. Perhaps not surprising that I now find myself working for a company where Do What Scares You is one of our key values. You learn the most when you’re way outside of your comfort zone.
  3. If you need help, just ask: There were countless times on the bookfield when I needed help. Sure, some people were rude, but overwhelmingly, if you asked for help, people were quick to give it. Three times, we found a place to live for the summer by knocking on doors and asking around. There were times my bike or car would break down and a customer would give me a ride to where I needed to get to. Times when I needed a drink and I’d just knock on a door and ask for water. As I’ve moved up in my career and taken on bigger leadership roles, I find myself increasingly leaning on this principle. There’s always someone to ask who knows more than I do and is happy to lean in and help when I’m out of my depth or don’t know the answer.

I count myself lucky that I was exposed to incredible leaders, mentors and role models so early in my career. And there’s rarely a day that goes by that one of Southwestern’s success principles doesn’t influence the way I’m approaching something – Og Mandino’s affirmations (thinking “This too shall pass” when I’m feeling low), The Student Manager Creed (“I’ll never ask you to do something I’m not prepared to do myself”) and nuggets of insight that have shaped my attitude towards leadership (“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”).

Now I find myself living in the USA, in a neighborhood that I know would make great ‘book turf’. And I’m a parent too… and I find myself worrying about the same things I used to chat to Mums and Dads about 20 years ago. At 7 years old, my daughter’s already doing math differently to how I was taught when I was at school. And although we already have the books we need to help her with this (albeit a pretty old set!), I’m always hopeful when someone knocks on our door that it will be one of the 1,500 bookmen and women who are out pounding the streets this summer learning the lessons and having the experiences that I was lucky enough to have. As I write this, I’m struck by the final verse of Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’ which seems even more relevant to me today than it did when I had it stuck to my dashboard the best part of two decades ago.

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Phil Burgess

C Space

Boston, Massachusetts

Southwestern AdvantageSelling books door-to-door. Reflecting on an adventure 20 years ago…

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