Undergraduate Blog / Career Development

Lessons from the subway

columbia subway station

On my first day riding the subway, from Columbia University to the Evol8tion office in midtown Manhattan, I chose to pass the time by reading Richard Branson ‘s autobiography: Losing My Virginity (a must read.)

Mid-ride I was abruptly interrupted by a loud confident voice. “Excuse me ladies and gentlemen,” A teen of thirteen or fourteen shouted while holding a large box under his arm. Almost any New Yorker that uses public transit can predict the next phrase out of the peddler’s mouth.

“My name is (fill in their name) and I am (fill in what they are doing). “

In this case, the teen was selling candy. As an entrepreneur, I pay close attention to these occasions. I watch how sellers introduce themselves, how they interact with other riders, what goods they sell, and to who they sell to. It’s true entrepreneurship in action.

Everyone, and their grandmother, has come up with the next billion-dollar idea. The Uber for this and Airbnb for that. Today great ideas are everywhere and it’s those who act who become successful.

But that’s not all, success takes effort. If you watch these entrepreneurs in action you will see three things they excel at that other entrepreneurs should take note of: the pitch, choosing the right market, and performing flawlessly.

It starts with their pitch. They don’t fumble around with popular buzzwords, they get to the point.

“My name is Daniel and I’m selling candy. I have Skittle’s, M&M’s, and Welch’s fruit snacks” (*The name has been changed)

This skill can’t be understated. It’s tempting to over sale your product, or service, to demonstrate its immense value through complexity, but above all else, that confuses the listener (both consumers and investors.) When pitching, simplicity is your best friend.

Next is product market fit. According to Marc Andreessen “Product market fit means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market”

If you get the opportunity to watch someone hawk (sell) goods on multiple occasions observe what they are selling: individually packaged goods that don’t spoil are the products of choice. But if you look a bit closer, at the smart sellers, you will observe that their inventory changes with the weather. On scorching hot days, they peddle hard candies while on cooler days they can sell a more varied inventory including chocolates and gummies. It’s the obvious choice to make because consumers don’t buy melted chocolates or smooshed fruit snacks, but for every person who changes their inventory there are a dozen who don’t. They just haven’t made the connection that weather impacts the sale of certain products.  

The same can be said for entrepreneurs, granted, I’ve severely over simplified product market fit. If your product does not satisfy your market you have two options: change markets or change the product to satisfy the market you have targeted. But please don’t be the peddler on the subway who continually tries to sell passengers melted chocolate.

Finally, execution matters most. On the subway you can tell between the experienced salesman and the fruitless peddlers, it’s night and day. The experienced can swiftly command the entire cars attention. They present themselves as trustworthy and can hook you with a troubled, but well prepared, life story or the sorrowful reason why they are selling. They are quick when making change and move throughout the car several times so not to miss a sale. The inexperienced/unsuccessful are simply the opposite. They don’t command your attention and -worst of all- look as if they have lost before they begin.

It may feel odd to take cues from folks on the subway, but they have made it farther in their venture than many entrepreneurs do. For what it’s worth, they’ve perfected their pitch, found the right market, and have learned how to perform under pressure.

We aren’t so different us (traditional entrepreneurs) and them (underground entrepreneurs.) They strive for success, think out of the box, deal with failure, and aim to help put food on the table for their families.

No, they don’t have to turn their ideas into high-growth companies, but I think it’s worth paying attention next time someone tries to hawk you a product on the subway.