The Mad Clientist: Shoveling Snow Unlocks Market Feedback for Start Up

child-cleans-snow-in-the-yard-picture

Around the age of 8, I started to shovel snow to earn extra money in Lynbrook, NY, a suburb of New York City. I had 2 main competitors: my friend from across the street and another at the end of the block. We each charged $2 to $3 per house, and we all used the same strategy.

The natural marketing strategy was to leave the house and knock on doors to offer our services. We would visit the closest houses first and then fan out, skipping houses where there were kids our age. We made a good living for our age and kept ourselves in baseball cards and other essentials of the time.

As one particular storm was ending, I decided to change my strategy. I went out early and could see I was the first one out. I skipped my own house and walked 3 blocks away before I started knocking on doors. I started with Marjorie’s house, named for the high-school girl who lived there. Marjorie’s mom answered the door and promptly hired me.

I went to work and tried to do an especially good job. I am not sure of the reason, but I was pumped. I shoveled the entire length and width of the 20-foot long sidewalk. I shoveled outside the decorative rails going up the steps as well as the inside where people walked.

I finished the job, promptly ringing the doorbell. I received a nice thank you and compliment. Marjorie’s mom also handed me a crisp 5-dollar bill and told me to keep the change. I was in heaven. This was serious money.

I went away trying to spot more homes who would pay premiums, wondering why they would. I changed my whole approach with the next snow storm.

I made sure I would get to Marjorie’s house first, even before shoveling my own walk. I worked the outer fringes of the neighborhood first instead of treating my home as the starting point. I kept a list of the people who tipped and paid premiums. One customer asked me if I would take on shoveling their snow for the entire winter – my first long-term contract. I offered this same arrangement to other premium payers who all agreed.

I shoveled snow until the age of 14, when I was living in Poughkeepsie, NY –  where there was a lot more snow than in Lynbrook. This extra snow, and 6 years of experience, brought another realization: I was better off paying a neighborhood kid to shovel my own driveway while I was out getting paid for 2 to 3 shoveling jobs, instead of performing a non-revenue assignment.

I quit the snow shoveling business and found other ways to make money. I look back and think about how much guidance I got from my clients and the market itself, much as I do today. I am a bit of proud of the idea of hiring someone to shovel my own driveway to leverage my time. And every time a storm hits in the western suburbs of Boston where I live, I am reminded how much can be learned by listening to your clients.

MBR