Entrepreneurial Lessons Earned Under a Shade Tree

It is summer and here in the Midwest a hot, humid and sticky day.  So it took some pretty compelling marketing and salesmanship to move me to leave the air conditioned comfort of my car as I drove through a city neighborhood.   But I could not drive past a refreshing tableau on a shaded street corner.  With a folding table and crudely printed brown card-board sign, the youngster I would come to know as Jason, offered lemon-aide or fruit punch for a buck a glass.  This marketing approach appealed to much more than my thirst.

Young Jason made a sale.  I got a refreshing drink and a longer trip down memory lane than I care to admit.  Before the first sip, I began thinking of my first entrepreneurial venture launched in my parent’s suburban front yard when I was about four or five years old.  I don’t remember my exact age, but I remember the lesson I learned about customer service and delivering what you’ve advertised.

My family had just moved to house in the shadow of a big high school and middle school.  The older kids would cut through my family’s yard to get to and from the athletic fields.  I was interested in all the equipment and the strange looking contraptions many of the older boys were wearing and carrying as they left the football practice fields in an Alabama summer.  The athletes seemed hot and tired as they were making their way home.

I got the idea I should open a drink stand to market to these thirsty athletes and I tried to talk my Mother into backing the venture.  She thought she had found her out when she informed me she didn’t have lemons for me to make lemon-aide.  I kept pestering Mom and she offered up a recipe and ingredients for “soda water.”  While I didn’t know what “soda water” was, it sounded pretty good.  After all, I knew soda was fizzy and came in great flavors like grape, orange and cola; so soda water was something I felt sure I could sell.

I printed up my sign for soda water, got my table set up in the yard near where the student athletes left practice, and went in for the cups and the soda water.  My mother pulled out baking soda and water and mixed it together as I watched expectantly.  If things went the way I thought they would, Mom was going to be mixing quite a few pitchers.  I went out with a few paper cups, ice and my pitcher of soda water.

It wasn’t long before a group of thirsty students were cutting through the yard after a hot summer practice and saw my set up.  They put down their coins and I poured their soda water and for about two seconds I was on top of the world as a soda water mogul.  Because as soon as my three customers took the first sip, there was a simultaneous spit-take!  This comedic technique wasn’t what I expected at all!  It turns out, my customers shared my impression that soda water would be in the cola family and not water mixed with baking soda.  I offered them refunds.  They declined, asking me instead to have lemon aide or fruit punch the next day.

I ran inside with my profits and their request, I wanted Mom to take me to the store right away so I could invest in my new enterprise and be ready for the next day.  But my mother told me it wasn’t right to take the money for something that wasn’t a real value.  She sheepishly admitted she’d come up with the soda-water as a way for me to “play”. Mom never thought I’d really make a sale, much less three!

We did go to the supermarket and get the makings for lemon aide and the next day when the trio came by my house after practice, they got their refreshing drink and their money back, I kept the stand open for a couple of days, before I moved on to another pre-school pursuit.  I don’t remember what interest pulled me away from the little front yard stand, but I will always remember the lessons it taught me.

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