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February 02, 2010

Top Desk

The 142-Year-Old New Idea

by Dan Moore, President, The Southwestern Company

In November of this year, I was listening to an interview on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered program. The interview was with Charles Handy, founder of the London Business School and a management consultant whose work has inspired me for some time.

The reporter who introduced the piece started by saying, “Commentator Charles Handy says we need to start thinking about jobs in a whole-new light.” Intrigued, I turned up the volume to drown out the traffic on the interstate as I heard Mr. Handy talk about the mental state of many who have lost their jobs in recent months bemoaning their fates and wondering if they would be able to get another suitable job.

He continued, “The world is full of potential clients—for something. The problem is that you have to create the something yourself, and most of us are not born entrepreneurs. Particularly if we have grown up and even grown old in institutions, moving from school to college to organization, places where work was shoved at you, yours only to pick up your shovel or pen and deal with it. It’s best to practice it young if you can.” (Italics added.)

It’s hard to imagine a clearer vision for why direct selling is more than an income for millions of people; it has changed their lives, forever. I heard Andrea Jung, CEO of Avon Products, tell the assembled group at last summer’s annual meeting that the number of new consultants recruited in the first quarter in Mexico equaled the total job loss in Mexico. Our largest companies are improving entire countries by providing the magic that is opportunity. Even our smaller and newest companies start with a simple idea: Present an opportunity to a person who has the desire, and they create their own futures. Mr. Handy’s “new” way to think about work is thriving every minute of every day, all over the world, through direct selling.

Our company, Southwestern, has been introducing this new idea to the audience that Mr. Handy says is best—young people—since 1868. When that first college student set out on the road during that summer vacation 142 years ago to sell Southwestern Bibles and books door to door, he probably had no idea that, over the next century and a half, tens of thousands of other college students would have their lives changed for the better the very same way.

I was a freshman at Harvard, working as a busboy in one of the dining halls (yes, it was suitably intellectual work), when a senior who was preparing for his fourth summer selling Southwestern products made a point of getting acquainted with me, later calling me to tell me about his summer opportunity. I guess he figured I wasn’t scraping plates and mopping floors for the résumé value. In fact, my parents had recently put their life savings into a brick-and-mortar business that was doing very poorly. The financial pressure on our family was extreme, and I couldn’t figure out how to work enough hours to make a significant-enough dent in my tuition so that I could afford to remain at Harvard.

Marty told me how much he had been able to save from his summers selling Southwestern books, and I couldn’t believe it. His most recent summer had exceeded my previous summer’s savings by a factor of 20. Moreover, he seemed, well, mostly normal. He didn’t do a lot of song and dance, and there sure wasn’t much hype in his opportunity presentation. But he got the point across that if he could do it, I could do it, if I were willing to follow a very old formula.

Work really hard—physically, mentally and emotionally.

Prepare by studying hard in Sales School.

Be coachable throughout the summer. As he put it, “Be smart enough to be dumb enough to be willing to learn.”

I joined 11 others from Harvard that summer as we traveled from Cambridge to Nashville for training, and then on to San Antonio, Texas, to spend the summer selling books, cold-calling door-to-door (we thought leads were for wimps). The first week, I was very successful. I had studied hard, I worked hard, and I was coachable. The second week, I nearly bombed out. I forgot to work as hard, and I sure was not coachable. Marty took me for a day to shadow him. At the end of the day, he looked me in the eye and asked, “Are you really committed? I believe in you, and in what you can become, but it is up to you.” I told him yes and went back to work.

This coming summer will be my 36th summer in direct selling with Southwestern. I have never worked anywhere else, and, in fact, have never written a résumé. I had the privilege of learning from and working directly with DSA Hall of Fame members Spencer Hays and Jerry Heffel. Many great people from other DSA member companies have unselfishly shared their time and influence, for which I thank them. But, most important, I have deeply appreciated the chance to share direct selling with college students.

Although our heritage was as sellers of religious products, today we sell the Southwestern Learning System, an integrated suite of printed products, educational software and a proprietary set of online learning tools. Student dealers now come from more than two dozen countries to spend their summers learning the principles of direct selling entrepreneurship.

Following their first summer, qualified students are invited to return as student managers and have the opportunity to build a sales organization, learning the principles of leadership, recognition, business ethics and integrity, as well as how to develop others—all while still in college. After graduation, we are happy to invite many into our professional ranks, where they continue to build organizations. Every one of our sales directors started selling as a college student. Our chairman and CEO, Henry Bedford, started selling as a college student. I guess you could say helping students grow and develop is forever in our blood.

It is a privilege to be in direct selling and to work with the greatest young people in the world. As Spencer Hays has said so many times, “There are two kinds of people in the world: Some find an excuse, and others find a way. It doesn’t take any guts or gumption to find an excuse; anyone can locate one. But it takes a quality person of genuine character to find a way over, under, around or right through any obstacle that stands in their way.”

Fads come and go, technological changes occur at an accelerating rate, the “good guys” in politics become the “bad guys” in the next administration, but principles that are always true endure. It is exciting to teach enduring principles to young people, knowing they will add their own unique talents and flavorings to them as they grow their businesses within Southwestern’s direct selling program.

Mr. Handy’s new idea—self-employed entrepreneurship, especially starting with young people—is fantastic. We’ve thought so for 142 years now, and look forward to the next 142.

Dan Moore is President of The Southwestern Company.