How a summer job selling knives has helped me with my startup

By Hayden Williams , written on September 8, 2013

From The News Desk

Many people have summer job stories. I have a friend who helped build prisons in Louisiana and another who harvested crawfish out of his backyard to sell to restaurants. Spending most summers mowing lawns, working in restaurant kitchens, and cleaning golf clubs, I never had a great story to toss in the ring. That is, until I rented a shack in someone’s backyard in Cape Cod the summer after I graduated high school.

“Hi, I recently moved in next door and would like to show you my knives,” was a phrase I repeated that summer on many stranger’s doorsteps.

Fortunately, I weighed 120 pounds, so I would have made for the world’s least intimidating robber. Also, any close examination of the bag I carried, past the protruding knife handles, would yield a sea of ladles, garlic presses and other weapons of mass food production. This is because I was selling high-end cutlery and cookware door-to-door.

I had rented what was described on Craigslist as a “boathouse” with three buddies and moved in before finding a job. When I saw a newspaper ad looking for student workers who “want promotion opportunities based on merit, not tenure” and “ongoing training and professional development,” I was sold.

Upon going into the office for an interview, it quickly became apparent that behind the marketing jargon was a job peddling knives door-to-door. Without a better option, I picked up my set of sample knives, a cutting board and sales catalog, and hit the road.

We were told to start by giving presentations to our parents, their friends and others likely to be sympathetic. Unfortunately, I didn’t know anyone in Cape Cod outside the high school buddies I was living with. You might not believe it, but my 18 year old friends weren’t in the market for $30 vegetable peelers, no matter how balanced the ergonomic handles were. I set out knocking on our neighbor’s doors. I would introduce myself, explaining I was new to the neighborhood, and would appreciate it if they checked out my wares.

This strategy was only really successful with individuals who seemed starved for company. Most people had the knee-jerk reaction most of us have to an unexpected sales pitch: “I’ve never heard of your product and don’t want to be coerced into buying it.”

After a week I tweaked my initial ask, saying that I was new to the job and would really appreciate the chance to practice my presentation. When faced with the proposition of being asked for feedback, rather than their checkbooks, people were a lot more willing to let me in the door.

I’m reminded of this experience whenever I hear the axiom, “ask investors for money and you’ll get help, but ask for help and you’ll get money.” My experience isn’t perfectly applicable, as we haven’t raised money for Treatings, but as I’ve mentioned, I’ve been guilty of firing off plenty of errant cold emails to investors. It’s no surprise that when I’ve couched potential meetings as a chance to bounce around ideas and get feedback, I’ve had a higher response rate than an “I’d love to show you our product” email. Without context, gunshy VCs are weary of being pitched and already know (or think they know) that they won’t be interested in investing in this product/team they’ve never heard of. This results in a declined meeting, or more likely no response.

Back to my knife-scapades, determining how to get into the door of potential customers was the first challenge. Once inside, I had to learn how to convert these presentations into sales. The most compelling part of every presentation was the demonstration. It wasn’t just exhibiting my products, but comparing them to what the individual was currently using. This was crucial, because most people don’t wake up in the morning with the burning problem of wanting to replace their cutlery.

Procter & Gamble faced a similar problem of making potential customers realize they had a problem when first trying to sell Febreze in the mid-90’s. Documented in Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit, executives marketed Febreze as a product that could eliminate bad smells. They ran into difficulty because people become desensitized to the odors that constantly surround them. The marketing team walked into one woman’s house who owned nine cats. They almost gagged at the overpowering scent. When asked how she dealt with it she replied that she didn’t perceive an odor. Although most people use dull knives on a daily basis, it’s not an annoyance because they quickly become used to it.

To surface my potential customer’s problem, I centered every demonstration around a side-by-side comparison of my knives with theirs. First, I would ask my audience to retrieve their finest steak knife. Then, I would whip out a piece of leather and ask them to see how many cuts it took to get through it first with their knife, then with mine. My magical knife always cut through in one slice, a feat no one else’s knife could match. After this demonstration, and the contrived joke “of course I’m not suggesting your steak is the consistency of leather Mrs. Johnson,” I had their attention. We would repeat the process with other household  knives, cutting through rope and tomatoes, shredding carrots, etc. By the end of the summer, I was fortunate enough to have sold products to 85% of the households where I was let in.

When speaking with potential members or paying companies for Treatings, we’ve borrowed this practice of framing our platform in terms of inefficient habits it can replace. Since we are a professional networking platform, we ask potential members what they currently do when trying to meet people outside their network. They’ll often explain it’s a combination of tapping alumni networks, trying to cobble together 2nd and 3rd degree connections and cold emailing. When people catalog these existing options in their mind, our proposition of a platform where all members are open to grabbing coffee and talking about their work becomes more attractive than when they think about it in isolation.

To vet our envisioned revenue model, we don't just tell companies we'll give them a branded page on Treatings. We first ask how much time HR spends trying to attract talent and how much money is spent on third-party recruiters. They often lament that HR is strained and external recruiters charge over 20% of employee’s first year salaries. With these inefficiencies in mind, companies are better primed to evaluate the benefit of having a platform where employees can serve as brand ambassadors and refer talented individuals they meet through Treatings to HR.

Knocking on stranger’s doors while clutching a pleather bag full of knives and cookware wasn’t the most fun I’ve ever had, but I think I’m better for it. It was the best thing I’d never want to do again.

Unless any anyone out there is in the market for a cheese knife or basting spoon. In that case, I’m open for business.

This is the 10th installment of a PandoDaily weekly series that chronicles the experiences of a young entrepreneur as he bootstraps his startup.

Part 1, "The less-than-glamorous life of a young entrepreneur."

Part 2, "How to survive co-founding a company with a friend."

Part 3, "Starting a company and having a girlfriend isn’t easy."

Part 4, "Customer validation: from lean startup to craigslist.”

Part 5, “Dealing with competitors without turning your product into Mr. Tumnus." 

Part 6, "Why I gave up a cushy career as an investment banker to launch a startup."

Part 7, "The best way to take feedback: Keep quiet."

Part 8, "The embarrassment of premature VC-infatuation."

Part 9, "Don't ask me about money! I'm a startup founder."

Come back next Sunday to read the next installment.

[Image courtesy Vagabond Shutterbug]