What I Learned from Selling Knives Door to Door
It was borderline pyramid scheme, but with some major life lessons.
I nervously sat in a run-down office fidgeting with my resume. I dressed my best — black slacks, blue dress shirt, and a checkered tie. It was my first somewhat legit job interview in college. Prior to this, I worked as a server in the college cafeteria and then as a janitor.
My friend had supposedly gotten me this job interview. Week after week in class, he would show me his paychecks. They ranged between $500-$1000… per week. Back in 2004, that was serious money for a part-time college student job.
I would ask what he did for work, but he was always super vague about it (I later knew why). After about 2 months, he said he could get me an interview and would put in a good word for me. I was beyond thrilled. I thought this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance at making it in the business world.
The manager called me into his office. He skimmed briefly through my resume and asked me 1–2 questions about my major. Then he said I seemed like a hardworking person and he liked me. Plus since my friend had recommended me, I was hired.
I tried to contain my excitement as I smiled politely, shook his hand, and walked out of the office. The interview lasted less than 5 minutes, and I had already landed the job. There was only one problem… I still didn’t really know what that job was.
Some of you already know where this is headed. You could see it coming a mile away. It was one of those pyramid schemes. Kind of. There was a little bit of pyramid in there, but it was pretty much sales.
Later that week, I went to an orientation at the office to learn more about the job. Sitting there in a group of other college students, we learned what we were actually doing. We were selling knives.
They were expensive kitchen knives, ranging from $400-$2000 a set. We worked off of commission and got 20% of each sale, eventually working our way up to 50% of each sale.
How did we make sales? Well, that was all up to us. We had to call up our friends and family to do presentations for them and pitch them. Then we asked for a list of their friends and family, made cold phone calls, and tried to set up in-home presentations to sell to them.
Oh, and we also had to front $200 to buy a knife set to use in our demos. That was kind of sketchy. I think there was a class-action lawsuit about that several years ago.
So for the next year, I went to random strangers’ homes (not exactly door-to-door, but similar) and did knife presentations for them. Here’s what I learned from that experience.
People are Your Most Valuable Resource
The company knew this, and that’s why they used independent contractors like us to make sales instead of selling in stores. No one would buy a $1000 knife set in a store. But they might if someone sitting in their living room convinced them.
More important than the sale was the referral. It’s what kept the possibility of future sales alive. At the end of the presentation, we would ask people to give us the contact info of 5–10 friends and family members who we could do a presentation for, right there on the spot. It felt awkward and sometimes even coercive.
Then we would cold call those people, say we’re a friend of so-and-so, and ask to go to their home for a knife presentation. Using college students was ideal, as we would use the typical “I’m a college student try to pay for school” line to get into homes. No one would invite a 40-year-old into their home to show knives.
As long as we had referrals, we had sales presentations and potentially sales. But as I learned quickly, once that referral pool dried up, there were no more presentations to do.
That same mindset applied to recruiting new sales people as well. This is where the pyramid kicks in. For every person you recruited, you would get a commission from their sales. So the more you recruit, and the more your recruits sell, the more money you make. It wasn’t fully a pyramid scheme because you could still make money just by selling knives, but there was a small element of it.
So the whole “putting in a good word with the boss” and getting the interview was just for show to look professional. They’ll basically just hire anyone you can recruit.
The company tapped into relational networks to make sales and to recruit sales people.
That job taught me the value of networks, but also unfortunately the tactic of abusing networks for personal gain. People were only valuable to us for their money and for their friends — their human capital.
Human capital doesn’t have to be zero-sum economy. Investing in relationships and building your network, both professional and personal, produces rewards for everyone. See the value in people, not for what you can get, but for what you can give, because there are benefits in the act of cultivation alone. And the more people you invest in, and the deeper the investment, the higher chances you’ll have of them coming through when you have a need.
Value is Subjective
The sales pitch was pretty standard. It was roughly a 30–45 minute presentation. I would chat with people for a little bit to warm them up — talk about college and my future aspirations to win sympathy points. Then it was into the demo.
I showed them how bad their current knives were. Then I would whip out my expensive knives and cut random things that I brought while explaining why these knives were so great. Then to the pitch. If you’re a sales person, you love this part. For everyone else like me, I hated it. Which is why I didn’t sell so many knives.
First I presented the most expensive set with all the knives at $2000. That was the shock value. Then I showed the set most people get at $800, which seems more reasonable than $2000. There were a few scripted lines I had to go through every time they presented an objection. If I couldn’t sell that one, then I would drop down to the basic set at about $400.
I learned a lot about people’s values and priorities in those presentations.
Some people I thought were sure sales. They had BMW’s in their driveways. Huge 2-story houses. All kinds of ornate art and decor. You just knew they were loaded. $800 would be nothing for them. They even had cheap generic kitchen knives, so I thought this would be the perfect sale. I would put extra “umph” into my presentation.
But they didn’t buy anything. Not even a single knife. They just didn’t care about kitchen knives and saw no value in them. They were fine spending tons of money in other places, but not on knives.
Then there was this single guy in his 40’s. He ran a small auto shop and I did a presentation in his 10ft x 5ft office. The office looked like crap. The desk was beat up. The chairs were rusty and squeaky. Paint was chipping off the walls. There was no decor. He said he was busy and only had 20 minutes.
This is a waste of time, I thought. So I did my presentation half-assed just to get through it. I got to the pitch and quickly showed the $2000 knife set. Before I could move onto the $800 tier, he interrupted me and said, “I’ll take that.”
I sat for a few seconds in disbelief before I stuttered out, “You mean the $2,000 one?”
So there was no need to finish the presentation. I quickly filled out the order form and was on my way. It was my first and only sale of the priciest set, and I was up to 40% commission at that point, so I made a nice $800 on the sale. I was so shocked that I completely forgot to ask for referrals.
My guiltiest sale was to a single mother. As I did the presentation in her cluttered, one bedroom apartment, I knew these knives weren’t for her. Glancing around at the pile of dirty plastic dishes on the table and sink, the clothes lying around everywhere, the overflowing trash can, and stained walls and carpet, I was pretty confident she wouldn’t be buying anything. I was sure that she shouldn’t be buying anything.
When I got to the sales pitch, I quickly worked my way down to the basic set for $400, and to my surprise she started considering it. I just let her mumble to herself as I wondered if maybe she secretly had more money than I assumed and just didn’t like cleaning.
But then she uttered the words, “I don’t know, I really want these knives, but I still need to buy my daughter’s medication for this month.”
I froze in awkwardness for a bit. She definitely should not be buying these knives. She should buy her daughter’s medication. So I actually tried to talk her down by saying the knives weren’t for everybody, that there was no pressure to buy now, and that she could just call me later after she thought about it(the exact opposite of a sales pitch).
But she was still considering buying the knife set! Even though she was struggling to take care of her sick daughter!
I should’ve have just left and feel ashamed that I didn’t. For some reason, I felt like I shouldn’t impose my judgement of her financial situation, or take her dignity in making financial choices. So I talked her into just buying one knife because she could cut everything she needed to with that knife. She eventually agreed and bought it for $80. Better than spending $400, but still, $80 is a lot of money for one knife.
I learned through that job that people’s values aren’t always what you think they are, and they’re often not what they should be, or at least what you think they should be. It’s a hazy line between judgement and acceptance. It’s safe to say that we should generally pass less judgement on others and what they value. It’s a little harder to see the boundaries when those values result in actions that are immoral and harmful. When do we stand back and say, “It’s your life, you do your thing?” And at what point do we step in and say, “What you’re doing isn’t good, you should probably stop?”
Time is So Much More Valuable Than Money
Though the job was based on commission — we got paid a percentage of the knives we sold — we were also supposed to get paid for doing the presentations, whether or not we sold anything. Technically.
If we didn’t sell any knives, we were to be paid $8 per presentation we did. We just had the people we visited fill out a simple form that we would submit to our manager.
I would do that for the first month or so, but then quickly noticed no one else was doing it. There was this unspoken culture that you shouldn’t have to do that. You should be so successful at selling knives that you wouldn’t need the few dollars from your unsuccessful presentation. It was sympathy money, and accepting it was a sign of failure.
Yeah, I know that’s an unhealthy work culture, especially as a college student that’s taking time out of studying to work a job. But I caved to peer pressure and stopped submitting those forms.
Which meant I would do work and not get paid. Depending on how many presentations I did and how far I had to drive, I could work anywhere between 10–15 hours a week. Unpaid.
It did force me to be smarter with my time. I booked presentations in nearby neighborhoods close together. I did all my presentations on 2 days during the week.
I learned a lot of skills in time management and time valuation from that job. Knowing that my work time didn’t necessarily result in getting paid, or even paid adequately, helped me pay closer attention to how I spent my time.
Now I look at how I spend all my time through the lens of ROI. At least I try to. If I spend my time doing this activity, is it worth it? Does it make me happy? Will it advance me towards my goals? Will I be glad I did it afterwards? Is there something else I can’t do because I’m doing this thing?
Nothing Needs to Be Wasted
My time selling knives as a college student was… interesting. I wasn’t as good at sales as some of my colleagues, so I don’t think I made an adequate amount of money for the work I was putting in. I certainly didn’t make as much money as my friend did. And I wasn’t good at recruiting other people, so I didn’t get any commissions from other sales.
But I can still extract value from that job today. There are many other random things that happened during these encounters with strangers. I cut my own finger with the knives. Twice. One couple didn’t want to buy any knives, but just straight up gave me money to support my college classes. One lady asked me to DJ a wedding (I had no experience, and yes, I still did it).
As I continue to reflect on it more, I’m finding that I can still learn lessons from the different interactions I had and the environment was in, both positive attributes to take away and negative attributes to improve upon. The more I learn, the more valuable that time and that job becomes.
That’s kind of the point. I’ve had many decisions and experiences in my life I regret. I’m sure you do too.
But I’ve spent a lot of time viewing those experiences as wasted time. I get into the pointless thought pattern of alternative realities. If I had made this other choice instead, I would have a different outcome and a different life, better than what I have now.
Yet it’s pointless to ponder alternative outcomes because we make the decisions that we do at the time based on the information we had. Nothing can change that.
However, as I’ve started viewing those experiences from a standpoint of curiosity rather than regret, those times that I thought were wasted start becoming infinitely valuable.
Instead of wondering what I should’ve done, I ask what I can still learn from those events that I can apply right now to my life. My past experiences, good and bad, are essentially free case-studies for living a better future.
There were a lot of other experiences during my college years that formed my life now. Here’s another Medium story on how a free Subway sandwich in college led to a decade of credit card debt.