Cord Wood, Watermelons and Haircuts

All of us have our philosophies on business.  We have our own unique theories and our personal experiences that create our view of the business world.  These views of the business world have a large impact on our future decisions.    Through formal education I learned a tremendous amount in my high school years and at Texas A&M – both in undergraduate and graduate work.  I have them to thank for some great base knowledge on business.  But I truly learned the most about sales and people from my family and jobs that I had while growing up.  It is my belief that my view on the sales world can be summed up in three key concepts: Cord Wood, Watermelons and Haircuts.  Did I just read that?  Mitch, have you completely lost your mind?  That sure looks like a pretty strange combination – even to me and I am writing this article!  For me the world of sales can be summed up into these three jobs that I have been involved with.   Now if you have chosen to read this far, there is a fairly good chance that you may hear me out and I might even make a point!

            Cord Wood

I had a job of cutting cord wood as an extra source of income while I was working at Texas Hydraulics.  I can say this with anonymity now because I no longer work there!  I am sure that someone would have found a reason why I should not have been doing this during the evening and weekend hours.  For those of you who may not be familiar with cord wood, it is fire wood.  Trees are cut down with a chain saw and then branches are removed.  The tree is then cut into lengths that are round “blocks” of wood.  Now comes the really hard part.  The wood was manually split with an ax in order to be delivered to a client.  This split wood is then loaded into a trailer and delivered to the client. 

I had a partner named Sid on this project.  His last name shall remain anonymous to protect the innocent.  However he does live in Cameron, Texas.  Sid and I began going out to the neighborhood and “selling” this wood to prospective clients.  Mind you we hadn’t cut any yet – we were just working on the sales side.  Being proactive, quality sales people we had done our research and knew that the coming winter was to be the worst one in the past 20 years!  This fact alone was good for wood sales.

After several door to door sales orders, we decided to boost our sales with an ad in the local newspaper – one that no mortal could resist!  Several more orders came in and soon we had approximately 30 cords of wood sold.  Not bad at $ 80.00/cord delivered.  I was told by my wife that the extra cash would come in handy for Christmas.

Now this is the part of the story where the lesson begins.  A cord of wood is a significant amount of wood and work. A cord of wood is 128 cu ft.  That measurement still doesn’t tell the whole story – imagine a stack of wood 2 feet wide by 4 foot high and 16 feet long – better picture?

Here are the key lessons I learned from Cord Wood - It is much easier to sell a cord of wood than it is to manufacture.  Additionally, we didn’t realize until much much later that some of the orders were from apartment complexes and were second story deliveries.  Finding out about client requirements prior to agreeing to delivery is a good thing.   Pretty simple lessons but ones that were hard in coming through a sore back, legs and arms for several months!


          When I was in High School my family raised watermelons as an additional source of income.  We had a 10 acre patch of watermelons and grew Charleston Grays.  I know you might not realize it, but there are several varieties of watermelons!  Although this is not one of the key lessons that I learned it has stuck with me for over 25 years. 

The raising and delivering of watermelons is an extremely manual process much like the cord wood.  Why is it that so many of life’s lessons can be painful?  Once the watermelons are ripe an individual goes through and chooses which ones will be harvested.  My dad performed this function.  Each melon is then rolled out from the vine.  Following this, a truck or a truck pulling a trailer is driven in between the rows.  Watermelons are then handed up to a person on the trailer or truck bed who stacks them. 

Every once in a while, either by chance or design, a melon will fall off the truck and split open.  It is a wonderful experience because those who are doing the handing up now can gorge themselves on the sweet melon meat.  The melons would be warm in theTexas heat, but oh my - would they ever be sweet. 

            We had planted these melons by seed, watered and fertilized, pulled weeds and harvested them and finally tasted them.  As a young teenager I could not only tell you about the process of raising melons and the technical aspects, more importantly I beamed with pride for the fruit that I had helped raise.   Our dad could count on us to tell prospective clients what he already knew – that we had some of the best watermelons in the state, and if you didn’t believe it after trying them then you didn’t have to buy them! 

The key lesson in watermelons was know your product, be involved with your product but most importantly be proud of your profession and your company. 


Finally, when I was in grade school I had the opportunity to have a shoe shine stand at my dad’s barbershop.  I say opportunity because I got to watch him work.  My dad cut everyone’s hair in Bryan/College Station.  I know you are thinking he didn’t cut everyone’s hair but he was actually pretty close. 

His clientele included:  Football coaches, players, students, teachers, professors, pastors, doctors, singers, babies, hospitalized individuals, lawyers, politicians, Baseball coaches, TV personalities, Professional Athletes, CIA, FBI, Firefighters, Policemen, psychiatrist, judges – get the point?  He cut a lot of people’s hair.  Now when he started business he didn’t cut all those people’s hair.  When he started he had to find clients just like any business.

I watched him sit people in his chair, wrap a smock around them and then ask them how they would like their hair cut.  Even if they had been to him a hundred times he would ask how would like your hair done today.  Even if they were almost completely bald!  My dad realized a key component to sales: it isn’t about me but how I can use my skills and value to help you get where you want to be. 

I remember one time in the 70’s a guy brought in a picture of John Travolta from the movie Saturday Night Fever.  John Travolta had a lot of hair.  It was jet black and coifed to perfection.  The client had thinning blonde hair.  My dad asked him the question “How would you like your hair cut”?  The client told my dad – “Make me look like this picture”.  I waited with anticipation to hear my dad’s response.  Could he make him look like John Travolta, would he tell the guy that he was bald?  My dad’s response was dead on as always!  He was honest with the client and told him that he could not make him look like the photograph, but that he could make his hair resemble some of the aspects of John Travolta’s.  He then proceeded to show him how his hair might look and get approval.  The client accepted the professional advice and was ultimately pleased with the product.

            Another aspect of my dad’s business was the constant training.  If there was a new technique to be learned, my dad wanted to be involved. 

The key lessons from haircuts are: If you want to know what your clients want – ask them.  Don’t be afraid to say that you can’t provide a service or product if you can’t deliver.  And the final lesson is never quit learning

Life lessons on sales summed up in three jobs – Cord Wood, Watermelons, and Haircuts?  While our life experiences may be different, the principles behind each of the lessons learned are universal.  Remember as always no one said it was easy and Hard Work Does Pay Off!


Mitchell Harper