The smell of oranges always makes me think of the Flourtown Farmers Market.
No, it’s not because the smell of fresh-squeezed juice being sold by the market’s vendors filled my childhood nostrils with an aroma so memorable. It’s because of the trash compactor.
I was ten years old, and like many ten year-olds, I bugged my parents for toys to play with outside (water guns) and inside (NHL 94 for Sega Genesis). Mr. and Mrs. Fischgrund didn’t always give in, however, and I quickly realized that I would need several allowances, and hence several months, to save enough to make my purchases. I have never been the patient type.
The Flourtown Farmers Market was located in – you guessed it – Flourtown, PA, only blocks from my house. The place was filled with food merchants from all over the world. There were Afghanis selling Mediterranean food, an elderly Polish couple running the butcher shop, a loud and entertaining Pakistani selling pasta dishes, and many others – all of whom fascinated me.
As my mother wrapped up a purchase at one of the stands, I asked her permission to go speak to the older gentleman who ran the deli. She said yes, and I walked over and applied for my first job. He laughed, and told me to go ask his son, Kenny, who ran the BBQ stand diagonal and across the aisle from where I stood.
So I walked over and asked Kenny, who told me I was too young to work behind the counter. However, he did say that the Flourtown Farmers Market could always use a bagboy – someone to take trash out for the 25-ish vendors in the building, and someone who would carry grocery bags for the elderly and weak who were unable to do so on their own. I could work Saturdays, from 8:30 until 3:30, surviving off tips I received for carrying bags, and discretionary cash from the vendors whose trash I would deposit in a large trash compactor behind the building.
I had my first job. Looking back, it was entrepreneurial before I even knew what entrepreneurial meant. The Flourtown Farmers Market did not include guaranteed pay, and my compensation would reflect my hustle and sales skills with customers during the day, and the merchants at the end of it.
I started the following week, and I would go on to work as a bagboy for three years, learning many lessons that have stuck with me through life. Among them:
- Even a bagboy requires sales skills. I would approach older folks and people struggling with their bags with a smile, asking if they needed a hand to their car. I needed to convey charm, capability, and most importantly – trust. I wanted these people to know that the boy who could barely carry the bags himself deserved that tip.
- I learned the lesson of networking early on. It wasn’t always busy in the market, and many of the merchants played cards, told dirty jokes, played whiffle ball in the lot, and found other ways to pass the time. I was easily the youngest person working in the building, and I found ways to make friends.
- Understanding and patience. This story may seem cute, but things didn’t always go my way. Many times I would carry heavy bags out to someone’s car and they’d say “thank you” and jump in their car, no tip included. I had to understand there was no requirement for a tip, and to be patient and wait for the next one. To this day, and especially when I started my first company over five years ago, I constantly remind myself of this message.
- I was fortunate in my upbringing that I didn’t have to handle serious adversity before age ten. The Flourtown Farmer’s Market, in many ways, was a wakeup call. I played baseball in spring and summer, and one Saturday I had an early game. I went around an hour or so early collecting from the vendors, a dollar here and a dollar there. One business owner was clearly having a bad day, and he screamed at me in front of his workers and customers for leaving early, then threw 50 cents on the ground for me to pick up. I was only 11 years old. Editor’s note: Unfortunately for him, my mother was one of the customers in the area, and the next week I received a very nice apology (and a $1.50 instead of my regular $1.00).
- There was more adversity to be experienced, as it appears in many forms. The poultry stand had several guys working in their late teens and early 20s, and they took me under their wing a bit (and also had some fun at my expense). One of the guys, named Marshall, told dirty jokes that used to make me turn bright red. One Saturday he wasn’t there, and I asked another one of the guys behind the stand where he was. He took me aside and calmly told me that Marshall had overdosed on heroin and died the weekend prior. I didn’t even know what heroin was. Because I couldn’t let the other guys see me upset, I went into a bathroom stall and cried for ten minutes.
- Yes, even bagboys must deal with competition. Every few months, a random kid around my age would see what I was doing to make a few bucks, and show up to do the same. At first I got frustrated, but then I realized one of the great truths about business and entrepreneurship, something that has become my mantra – show up, work hard, do the right thing, and the results will come. While I may have experienced an uncomfortable Saturday or two dealing with a peer trying to steal my job, they would inevitably get frustrated by a lack of tip or an angry vendor, and would not return.
- Keep your eyes open for opportunity. I did not want to be a Flourtown Farmers Market bagboy forever. After a few years of making 20 bucks on a Saturday, I was offered a job by “Joe Pony,” the seafood stand owner, for a glorious $5 an hour!
- The value of money. Like many fortunate ten year-olds, my parents took care of the necessities. But after a couple of years, I was the only elementary school kid I knew who had an ATM card and 500 bucks in his account. When I wanted a water gun or Twisted Metal 2 for PlayStation – I bought it.
- Asking for help. I forgot that I opened this story with oranges and trash compactors. I would use the hand truck to wheel a trash can filled with squeezed oranges to the trash compactor. The first time, I went to lift it and…nothing happened. I was too weak. I stood there, embarrassed, waiting for the next person to come by and help me. When they did, I asked, and they laughed and effortlessly lifted it and dumped those oranges in. My embarrassment faded, and until I was strong enough a year or two down the road, everyone helped the Flourtown Farmers Market bagboy throw away his oranges.
The Flourtown Farmers Market bagboy learned a lot in those days that now feel like a lifetime ago, but not only about work ethic and entrepreneurialism. Opportunity is everywhere, relationships are everything, and experience and the way a person deals with adversity is ultimately what sets them apart from the rest. This guiding principle has remained the same since the day I launched FischTank PR through today.