“Where have all the paperboys gone?” asked a subhead in a must-read Reason magazine cover story by Lenore Skenazy and Jonathan Haidt published last December, provocatively entitled: “The Fragile Generation: Bad policy and paranoid parenting are making kids too safe to succeed.”
I had a paper route, from age ten to almost my 16th birthday. It was a remarkably valuable experience. In fact, it probably taught me more about myself, money, people, and business than anything I learned in grade school, high school, and college combined.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that everything I needed to know I learned as a paperboy — to paraphrase the title of a popular mid-’80s self-help book by Robert Fulghum, in his case extolling life lessons supposedly learned in kindergarten.
My paper route probably taught me more about myself, money, people, and business than anything I learned in grade school, high school, and college combined.
I learned what I was — reliable, diligent, deadline-oriented. And what I wasn’t — a natural-born salesman, a driven entrepreneur.
I ran a small business (more of a micro-business, actually). Six days a week, rain or shine, in snow or 110-degree summer heat, I delivered between 50 and 70-odd copies of the Redding Record Searchlight to my customers in my hometown in far northern California.
For starters, the papers that arrived every afternoon in a bundle on my driveway gave me an interest in current events. I read the headlines on the front page as I rolled the papers, and my hands turned black from the ink.
I was an independent contractor. At the end of every month I went door to door trying to collect from my subscribers. When I started, I think the paper was $1.75 a month and maybe $2.50 by the time I gave up the route.
One of the biggest deadbeats on my route — a surprise to me — was a well-to-do doctor who had a house with a pool.
The first money — the easy money — that I collected went to pay the paper for my product. The harder money to collect — which often required multiple trips to the homes and apartments of my customers — was my profit.
Apartment-dwelling college students frequently skipped town without settling up with me first. One of the biggest deadbeats on my route — a surprise to me — was a well-to-do doctor who had a house with a pool. It would sometimes take four visits before he’d answer the door, and then he’d either tell me to come back or make a big deal about scrounging for change to pay me.
But I’m not complaining. I was the richest kid in the neighborhood. Other kids had allowances; I had real money.
And that made me sort of popular. Neighborhood kids would often ask me to go to the local burger joint, and I’d usually end up paying. Over time it made me a bit cynical about money and friendships.
I had a bank account with almost a thousand dollars in it when I finally quit the route. And that was after buying a bicycle or two, a .22 rifle, and a lot of fishing gear.
I learned early on that cold-calling and rejection weren’t my thing.
I always had enough as a kid, and I’ve always had enough since. Never felt greedy or driven to get a lot more.
The local TV station and the high school were part of my route, as well as an apartment building. But I soon learned that people who lived in apartments were risky customers. And I learned early on that cold-calling and rejection weren’t my thing.
I could’ve probably sold more papers to the TV station if I’d contacted the reporters, news director, and ad salesmen directly, but one copy, delivered every afternoon to the receptionist, seemed enough. Ditto the high school, where I might have sold copies to teachers or even a whole civics class. But I wasn’t a hustler.
Besides not being terribly ambitious I was lackadaisical about doing my books — meaning matching my inventory to my customer count. I often had extra papers, which of course I had to pay for. But even at that I made $50 or $75 a month. Who needed more?
So I wasn’t surprised when, as an adult, I never went into sales, never worked on commission, never went into business for myself. That was all right by me. I knew it wasn’t who I was inside.
Adults took over that job in most places years ago. Motor routes were a much more efficient way to deliver papers.
That said, I have huge admiration for entrepreneurs who risk everything on an idea, bet on themselves and work however long and hard it takes, fail more often than not, and then do it again.
And as it turned out, I was ambitious and strategically entrepreneurial in my career. All that newsprint must have gotten into my blood. I had a journalism career that included stints as a foreign correspondent in Tokyo and then as a reporter and bureau chief at Forbes magazine in Los Angeles, before I left to do public relations work for Hawaiian Electric Industries in Honolulu and the Nasdaq Stock Market in Washington D.C. I ended up in management, running a D.C.-based association of state securities regulators before retiring and returning to work, again, on my hometown newspaper.
I feel bad that kids today don’t have the opportunity that I had to have a paper route. But adults took over that job in most places years ago. Motor routes were a much more efficient way to deliver papers.
And now many newspapers — like the one in my hometown, where I got my start as a copyboy and cub reporter while still in high school — are facing extinction. Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” at work.
Looking back at it now, I’m grateful to have been a paperboy and for all the lessons it taught me. It was the highlight of my childhood.
And at least I didn’t have to get a government permit, like the kids these days with lemonade stands.