“You must be an idiot, my order’s all wrong!” The man pounded the countertop as I stood on the other side, forcing a toothy smile.
“I’m so sorry, sir, that must be frustrating for you. We’ll get that fixed for you right away,” I replied. He stared at me for a moment, taken aback, and I watched the anger melt from his face.
A few short years later, I’d no longer be slinging fries at McDonald’s, fighting the occasional urge to throw punches at irate customers. I’d be running my own company. But to my surprise, some of the lessons I picked up as a fast-food server came in handy as a first-time entrepreneur in my mid-20s. In fact, they still do.
In addition to my McDonald’s job, I also bagged groceries and waited tables at the local Thai food joint. They weren’t that glamorous, but each of those jobs taught me that every customer needs to leave feeling better than when they walked in.
Other entrepreneurs I’ve spoken to say the same. Before founding a marketing agency, Megan Driscoll was a greeter at GapKids. “My job was literally to say hello to everyone that walked in the store,” she recalls. But it taught her “the importance of a smile and having every person walk away from my interaction feeling good.” That’s not just a lesson for service roles, Driscoll says. You can’t build a successful business that doesn’t operate by that same principle. “I apply that daily with my clients now.”
Daymond John is an entrepreneur who’s regularly featured on ABC’s Shark Tank, but long before founding FUBU (or, more recently, the coworking space Blueprint + Co), he held almost a dozen part-time jobs, ranging from handing out fliers to working at Red Lobster.
“A part-time job can be essential and will help mold you for a career or entrepreneurship,” says John. “These experiences will help prepare you for the real world.” He wagers that “50% of kids today will retire with a title that doesn’t exist right now. How do you train for something that you don’t know is going to exist?” Jobs might evolve, he suggested, but the basic skills that drive every business forward don’t. And there are loads of ways to develop those–including outside a traditional full-time job.
John started his first “business” in grade school, when he tried writing his classmates’ names on pencils and selling them back as “personalized” products. He quickly learned that the boys in his class weren’t the right demographic, but he could often get the girls to pay double the price. From this first “job,” John says he learned that “women are the No. 1 consumer–they control the budget and control consumer acceptance of a product.”
Unfortunately, in many industries, the more senior you go, the less diverse your colleagues become. But in entry-level jobs, you’re more likely to meet people from a broad range of backgrounds. Take advantage of it. “At Toys ‘R’ Us, I learned the importance of being able to get along with colleagues from all different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds,” says Jordan Barnett, cofounder of a men’s leggings company. “The key? Keep asking questions until you find something in common, then celebrate that.”
Niki Cheng, owner of the design store BoConcept, says her entry-level job as a drafter at an architecture firm taught her how powerful those relationships can be. Entrepreneurs may seem like they excel when flying solo, but if you want to scale your business, you’ll eventually have to hire or contract help. And before you know it, you’re a manager.
So, looking back, Cheng says that her “first job taught me that I have to take care of people, especially people who work with me. Happy people are more creative and more dedicated to their jobs.” I found the same working at McDonald’s, where it wasn’t just customers I had to be nice to, but my coworkers as well. Sometimes just lending a hand when things got really busy could go a long way. I’m glad that lesson was still pretty fresh when I began to work for myself.
If you wait until later in your career to start your own company, you might not remember as vividly how to navigate these front-line interactions with customers and colleagues. But if you enter entrepreneurship in your 20s, some of those early experiences are still fresh.
One day on the job at Albertsons supermarket, an elderly man came up to me, irritated that he couldn’t find a certain brand of cereal. My first instinct was, “Geez, it’s just cereal, no need to get upset.” But after chatting for a moment, I learned that the next day was his 50th anniversary, and he wanted to make sure his wife’s favorite breakfast was ready when she got up in the morning.
I’ll never forget this impromptu education in the cereal aisle: Everyone has different needs that sometimes aren’t apparent at first glance. A job in customer service is a crash course in empathy and conflict resolution. Whether you’re serving burgers or selling a SaaS product, interacting thoughtfully with your customer can help you understand their point of view, see their frustrations, and find a solution that benefits both parties.
Ultimately, that’s what entrepreneurship is all about–whether you launch your first business later on in your career, or right at the beginning of it.