In a Hit-Driven Business, You’re Only as Good as Your Last Hit

I was in South Carolina recently with a client and we got into a discussion about our first jobs and what we learned. I grew up on a farm in Western Kentucky so I had plenty of jobs from an early age. But I consider my first real gig to be a small sign-painting business in high school. It started when I got a shot at designing and painting the facade for the first video arcade in town, “Time Out”. The project required me to work with highly-opinionated people, manage others and make a tight deadline no matter what.

Once I’d done the main design work (the logo in the photo) and was ready to begin the paint job itself, I discovered almost immediately that I was in over my head — I had less than a week to complete the work (you can’t see it in the picture but there was about a 40 ft. wide x 15 ft. tall wall that had to be hand-painted with over a dozen colors according to my meticulously drafted proposal) and be ready for the weekend grand opening. I quickly acquired a co-founder — my friend Rick who I’d known since first grade — who was happy to join up. Rick was trustworthy, artistic and smart. We finished the job ahead of schedule.

The experience was a perfect fit with my growing passion for video games. I ended up spending a good portion of the paycheck in the arcade itself, one quarter at a time — and I’ve always wondered if the owner knew he’d get most of his money back. But it wasn’t long before people in town noticed the fancy logo at the new “hi-tech” arcade. I was thoughtful enough to make sure the owner had some makeshift business cards I’d put together in case anyone asked, and over the next couple of years I managed to snag several other local design/painting jobs. It was all part-time, hit-and-miss kind of stuff, but I kept it going and was able to save some of the money for college, learn how to manage my time, keep customers happy and balance Maker with Manager.

But most important, I learned I had to hustle. Since my work was always on display, I knew I couldn’t slack off on a job or it was over. I got my first tiny taste of running a hit-driven business — where I was only ever as good as my last product — in a small rural town in Kentucky, drawing logos and painting signs.