Thursday, August 07, 2008

Cutting Class

Article in Tuesday's WSJ on how some college kids spend their summer vacations (sub req)

When Derek Kernus failed to land a summer internship at a big company, the College of William & Mary student responded to an ad in the paper for an admittedly unusual job. Now he's spending the summer traipsing through the homes of friends, neighbors and strangers -- armed with carrots and rope -- selling stainless steel kitchen knives.

It might sound odd at best, nightmarish if you're shy -- and a far cry from an elite internship at an investment bank, law firm, or media company. But, say many an alum of the knife-hawking business, the skills and experience you need to boost your résumé and land a job postgraduation can be found in the quirky summer job.

The knife company in question is Cutco Cutlery, an Olean, N.Y., manufacturer with $198 million in revenue, according to Sarah Baker Andrus, director of academic programs for Vector Marketing, Cutco's sales arm. Ms. Andrus says the company brings in 60% of its sales over the summer, when a force of 40,000 -- 85% of whom are students -- fan out to ply their wares.

I too hawked Cutco one summer during my college years. I didn't last an entire season though. My knife selling stint probably went for about six weeks before I quit to perform some sort of manual labor that paid by the hour and not by the sale.

It wasn't an entirely bad experience however and I did chalk up some impressive sales. I think I was partly aided by the fact that I was on crutches for a few weeks that summer after tearing ligaments in my ankle. Never discount the power of pity.

The problem was consistency. When you're in college and working a summer job, you need to maximize your earnings in a relatively short period of time. I couldn't afford the dry spells that came with a sales job and the good weeks that I did have weren't enough to offset the bad.

Like the college students mentioned in the article, I also learned some valuable lessons that helped me later in my career. One important one was realizing that sales wasn't my bag and that it wasn't easy. I often hear people minimize the importance of good sales people or act as if sales is a job anyone could do. It's not. It's a lot of hard work, a lot of rejection, and it can bring a lot of stress. When you're with customers you got to always be on and always be on the top of your game. That ain't easy.

Another valuable takeaway from the experience was the knives themselves. We still have several Cutco knives (along with a fork, scissors, cake cutter, etc.) that we use regularly and they've held up very well over the years. Actually, that too was something I learned from the gig. If you're going to sell (or support, build, ship, etc.) a product, sell a high quality product. Life's too short to work with junk.

UPDATE-- Wright e-mails to reminisce:

I never sold knives, but I did have one (brief) stint selling fire alarms and that job did involve knives. Their come-on was to gather names with some sort of phony raffle at the state fair, then call the people and tell them that they had won a prize at the fair and that a representative would come by to deliver it, at the same time giving them some valuable information on fire safety. How could they say no? The prize we were to bring was a cheap carving knife.

I went out to one house, and the only thing the guy remembered entering at the state fair was a raffle for a new car. He was so excited and so sure that that was what he won that he had all his friends and neighbors over to be there when his car was delivered.

Needless to say, after a short introduction I beat the hastiest of retreats--and there was no way I was going to give that guy a knife! It was also my last attempt at selling fire alarms.

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