The pay is low, and the work tends to be mundane—if you can even get work. Yet summer jobs are often the first taste budding entrepreneurs get of real-world business experience. Inc. staff writer Kasey Wehrum spoke to successful business owners about their most memorable summer jobs—good and not so good—and how those early experiences influenced their career paths. (Pictured: Eileen Gittins, founder of Blurb, in the early '80s, on a farm in Herndon, Virginia)
When I was 16, I spent my summer in Maine working for a guy who had his own little company that built stone walls. Watching him having a fun time, with no boss, and being really creative with these rocks inspired me to think that maybe this working-for-yourself thing would be pretty cool. But there were a few paydays when he said, "Sam, I don't have the money to pay you." I learned about the difficulties of managing cash flow and the reality that a paycheck isn't just something that comes in the mail every two weeks. I saw him working his ass off, so I understood when he had to pay me next week instead of this week. It built a bond between us and taught me a lot about the value of honest communication with my co-workers.
One summer in college, I worked at a friend’s family farm in Herndon, Virginia. And I mean work, as in physical, manual labor—waking up at 4:30 in the morning, picking up bushels of corn and tomatoes, driving trucks to market. There were only four girls at the farm, and all the rest were guys. There was no mercy because of gender. If you couldn't pick up that 70-pound bushel to hoist it onto the flatbed truck, tough luck. Figure it out. You're here, you signed up for this, so get on with it. No whining, and no drama queens. That summer job was more physically exhausting, and my current job is more mentally exhausting, but at the end of the day, hard is hard. There are days when I come home and I am as emotionally and mentally drained as I was physically drained from working on the farm. There are days when you just don’t feel like it, whatever it is. Those early experiences taught me the discipline to know that that's too bad. You still have to show up.
The summer following my freshman year in college, a good friend and I drove across the country, from New York City to California. She was the more organized person and had a job in Berkeley waiting for her when we arrived. I never really had a plan. I proceeded to spend about a month looking for work. I finally found a job delivering pizza at Domino's. I was just so happy to get a job, because I was getting very hungry, and I didn't want to call my parents and ask them to send me money. I actually ended up loving delivering pizzas. I even got the Employee of the Month award. That was the summer I realized that, even though I was pretty good at winging it, you have to have a plan. That's what happens with entrepreneurs. You don’t have too much of a plan, but you know what you don't want. So you start something because you don't want the alternative. That leads to more things, and then you finally realize that you really do need a plan.
Summers are great, because you get incredibly bored, so if you are a creative person, you end up finding interesting jobs to do. I grew up in Scotland, and one summer I decided to become an importer of toy guns that shoot smoke rings. I thought it would be a great business to be in, and I figured I would sell them at gadget stores in the United Kingdom. I ordered a ton more of those guns than I needed and just had them sitting around my house. My parents still have boxes of those smoke ring guns in their attic. That might have been my first lesson in figuring out what works and what doesn’t. It turns out that shipping real stuff and paying the import tax is a lot of work and expense. I quickly realized that the Web was a lot more efficient than shipping physical stuff. After that, working on Mashable became my summer job.