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May 13, 2024

Economics by the Shovelful

By Harvey Silverman

Like every other kid growing up in New England in the 1950's a snowstorm meant I was up early and sitting by the radio listening to the "no school" announcements, waiting impatiently as the radio voice listed the school closures in alphabetical order. If my mom had tuned in a few moments too late I faced the ordeal of listening to local news until the list came around again. A snow day was filled with glorious possibilities; there was sledding and snowball fights, snow forts and snowmen, daytime television on the small black and white screen.

At the age of ten a snow day created another possibility; I became an entrepreneur and learned my first lessons about business and economics.

My friend, Mike, and I had decided that at the next big snowstorm we would answer opportunity's knock and earn some money by shoveling snow. At last a storm had come and, even better, it was on a weekday when dads would be at work thereby leaving the shoveling for somebody else.

I phoned Mike who was up, ready, and enthusiastic. A hurried breakfast and I made my way through the deep snow of my back yard into his, snow shovel on my shoulder and thoughts of cold cash on my mind. Mike was already outside and shoveling the front walk of his next door neighbor. I quickly made my way there and joined him. He told me that after I had called he went out, rang the neighbor's doorbell, and secured the business. Our first job!

As we happily shoveled away I asked Mike how much we were getting paid for the job.

"Thirty-five cents."

Thirty-five cents? That was all? The job had to be worth twice that, at least fifty cents anyway, I thought. And how do we split thirty-five cents anyhow?

First lesson. Negotiate an agreement with your business associate and establish a fair price.

After a short discussion Mike was persuaded that perhaps the price he had quoted was on the low side and we agreed that in the future we would determine a fair price, easily divided by two, before asking for the work. We continued to shovel with great energy; it was, after all, our first job. We produced a wide and clear path and when we had finished went to the front door to collect our pay. Mrs. O'Brien looked out at our work and gave us a half dollar since we had done such a good job. And she asked us to please come back at the next big storm.

Second lesson. Always do your best work. A happy customer is likely a repeat customer.

We went door to door seeking our next job. After a couple of rejections we were hired again, finished the work, and received our pay. We remained enthusiastic and off we went to find another customer. But by now there were other kids out on the street looking for and securing shoveling work. We had competition!

Now we were in a race for business. They were older, stronger, faster shovelers. We could tell by the tracks in the snow approaching front doors where they had already sought work. Jobs became more difficult for us to get. Luckily, we had been first on the street.

Third lesson. Start early. Be first with the product or service.

We neared a house the front walk of which had already been shoveled when a man -- an adult -- came out of the front door and asked if we were looking for shoveling work. That was confusing; his walk was already shoveled. He explained that he had shoveled the walk himself but was leaving immediately by taxi to his office and wanted his driveway shoveled so he could use his car tomorrow.

"I'll pay five dollars."

The snow was deep, the driveway long and wide, the job daunting, but five dollars! We agreed.

And so we shoveled. And shoveled. And shoveled some more. The fun part was gone, the energy waned, the enthusiasm dimmed. The piles of snow grew higher and higher. The driveway appeared to get longer and longer. We agreed this would be the last job of the day. We shoveled some more.

Finally, finally, we reached the end. We were done! We turned to go back to the front door and collect our pay from the man's wife when we heard the ominous sound.

The snowplow! The city's snowplow was making a new pass on the street, widening and cleaning up. We watched helplessly -- and hopelessly -- as it left a pile of heavy dense snow along the curb in front of the driveway.

More shoveling. We finally finished, collected our money and headed home, too tired to even split it up. That could wait until tomorrow.

Fourth lesson. Think through the job. Have realistic expectations. Don't take on a job you cannot finish. Anticipate unexpected difficulties.

The remainder of the day was spent alternately prostrate, watching a bit of tv, reading comics, and generally doing nothing. But the next day after school we met and split up our earnings. I had three dollars! Three whole dollars.

Fifth lesson. There is nothing wrong with hard work, especially when you get paid for it.

Life has changed a lot since those days. The snow blower decreased the need for snow shovelers. Landscapers put plows on their trucks to earn wintertime money. There is no longer a rush of kids out looking for shoveling jobs.

Sixth lesson. Markets change.

A couple of years later Mike and his family moved away. Despite the typical promises we lost touch in a year or two. Serendipitously after several decades I reconnected with Mike. He has had a happy and successful life as have I. We reminisced about our shoveling exploits and our shared and happy childhood adventures. It was wonderful to see him again.

Final lesson. Friendship is priceless.

First appeared in Good Old Days Magazine

Article © Harvey Silverman. All rights reserved.
Published on 2020-12-28
Image(s) are public domain.
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