The year is 1985, the month is June. Oakridge, Tennessee is hot and humid. I had recently watched a cartoon where the protagonists opened a lemonade stand, and I was inspired to do the same.
I faced a challenge in that our house was situated at the very end of a cul-de-sac and flanked by empty lots. Great for privacy, bad for foot traffic. The neighborhood was in a new area, and much of it was undergoing active development and construction.
So, in a move that predates the frenzied food truck trend by thirty years, I loaded an Igloo™ water cooler filled with fresh-made lemonade into my red Radio Flyer™ wagon. Armed with a sleeve of paper cups and my Ft. Knox combination lock piggy bank I headed down the street towards the nearest construction site. It was high noon, and I was hoping to take advantage of a lunch rush.
I dragged my wagon through the dirt clod desert of a front yard and was immediately approached by a grinning mob of more-curious-than-thirsty men. I stated my price and poured a cup, brandishing it before my audience, daring them to act. Several did — but others opted for the drinks packed into their well-worn, metal lunch boxes.
I asked each of the four that did pony up the $0.25 how they liked it, and they all said it was good, much to my 6-year-old satisfaction. I overheard two of them talking as they walked away, “It was a bit too sour for me,” said Burly, to which Gangly replied “No way, I can’t stand how sweet my old lady makes it for the kids — this was perfect.”
I struggled back through the ravaged yard one dollar heavier, feeling tingly with excitement. I then pointed the wagon further down the street to the next frame-only home-site rife with my hammer-wielding target market.
I arrived in much the same way, grunting my way across the hedgerows of bulldozer tracks, football-sized rocks, and various flotsam and jetsam of residential construction. I was treated to much the same greeting — curiosity the magnet. This time — borne of a childish need to please, rather than intentional gathering of market feedback — I asked each buyer if it was sweet enough.
I repeated this across the next 4 job sites. It was about 60/40, with the minority saying it was too sour. Having exhausted myself and my lemonade, I returned home with $3.75 and really dusty KangaROOS sneakers.
That evening I shared the day’s success story with my board of directors. I asked my father, who volunteered as a coach in the local softball league, if I could borrow his other water cooler. My mother then agreed to help me make a sweeter rendition for the following day’s efforts. My dad also suggested that I go later in the day to avoid competing directly with the lunch box thermos. Good call, Pops.
The next day I launched at 3:30PM with two offerings — Sweet and Sour — each complete with a product logo hand drawn onto yellow legal pad sheets. A smiley-faced sun next to a single lemon for Sweet, and a puckered, squinting sun boxed-in by 4 lemons for Sour.
Using my double load as an excuse, I forewent the dusty trek and parked curbside. I failed to draw a crowd, but a line of more-thirsty-than-curious patrons formed, with Gangly in the lead. On seeing my dual offering he hollered into the fluffy pink insulated shell at Burly, who eventually presented himself, and I offered him a cup of the sweet stuff on the house. He downed it and asked if he could buy another. I’m sure the pride and satisfaction on my face rivaled the sun for intensity that day, having won my first-ever game of customer satisfaction chess.
Over the following weeks, I developed a regular clientele while honing recipes and optimizing batch sizes. I earned $154.25 that June (My mom saved the deposit slip to my savings account — good call, Mom). I was allowed to withdraw 50% based on the rule my dad and I had agreed upon, and used that to buy my first new bike: a red E.T.-themed bike for $75.
Using customer feedback to improve your product isn’t always as simple as adding more sugar, but nothing feels sweeter than getting your offering right. Always talk to your customers directly, but also listen in on the conversations your customers are having without you, using the myriad tools the Internet has provided you. Overhearing a simple comment that was more honest than the direct feedback I’d been given had a measurable impact on my 6th summer, and it’s a lesson I’ve benefited from repeatedly in my 20 years as an adult entrepreneur.
Every entrepreneurs struggles. Yes, even Elon Musk. Heading both Tesla and SpaceX was never the original plan, and unsustainable at that. But, by building a stronger team and selectively adding talent and expertise through levels at both companies, Musk was able to maximize his productivity and have some semblance of work/life balance.