11 May 2011

How Newspapers and Manhattan House Taught Me a Business Lesson

Paperboy. (Getty Images)
Like many Americans of a certain age I had a paper route as a kid.  These days, if papers get delivered at all, it's probably by an adult driving a car, but back then it was us kids on foot or by bicycle -- or if you were lucky you got your parents to drive you.

My mother reminded me this week of a story from my paper route days.  One week I had the flu and she had to do my route, by car, no doubt.  She learned a lot about me that week, including how I avoided the houses with barking dogs (toss the paper from the curb) and why I complained about the paper route so much (it was a long route!).

One thing my mother remembered that I had forgotten was when one of my customers complained about not receiving the color supplements in her Sunday paper.  Confronted, I apparently confessed to ditching the color supplements because they made the delivery bag too heavy and slowed me down on the route.

It was all about efficiency and, I'd rationalized, people didn't need those wasteful supplements full of pleas to buy useless things.

I was wrong to alter the product in that way.  Perhaps it seemed like the right decision from a teenager's point of view -- efficiency was improved, waste reduced (sort of) -- but that was a decision I wasn't authorized to make.  I had challenged a system without really challenging it.  I had taken liberties with my assignment and had neglected to talk to my customer about my decision.  (I apologized later.)

My mistake came back to haunt me a few years later in one of my first jobs in New York City at Manhattan House Stationers on the Upper East Side.  Every Sunday morning, down in the bowels of Manhattan House, I put the Sunday papers together along with Pete, a Jamaican guitar player.  We had to make sure all the sections and supplements were there before Leo, the owner of the stationery store, inspected our work.

Then we delivered the papers throughout the entire building -- all 19-stories and 581 apartments!

What goes around comes around.

What decisions are you making in your organization that will come back to haunt your later?  What assumptions are you making about business decisions every day?  What changes are you making to your products without thinking of your customers?

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