by Kelsey Erin Shipman
Your Legacy: The Endless River
Even though I spent much of my career as a pharmacist, filling up to 1,000 prescriptions a day, my heart was always in business and marketing. I spent many evenings reading iconic books by Gary Halbert, Dan Peña, and the great E. Joseph Cossman. I had a number of side projects, but I just couldn’t get their theories out of my head. I had no idea it was because my grandfather put them there.
Genaro immigrated to New Jersey from northern Italy with nothing. He didn’t speak English and never finished school. But, he loved my grandmother. Together, they had thirteen children in Stanhope, New Jersey. What’s the first thing children need to be safe and secure in this world? Shoes. Thirteen pairs of shoes.
Forever the forward thinker, my grandfather didn’t work for someone else in order to buy shoes. He didn’t scrounge secondhand stores or receive charitable donations. He became a cobbler. His shoe-making business was a fast success in our small town. After some time, he was able to hand off his business to his oldest son, my Uncle Gus.
What’s the second thing thirteen children need? Food. A lot of food.
So, my grandfather started a grocery store. It was the largest store in town. He had me packing potatoes at age two. I remember sitting on the wooden floor in the loft above the store picking up potatoes with my bare hands and putting them into a large brown sack. I had to watch the scale hit the number five before I would get a new sack to fill. My grandfather gave me a quarter every time I left the shop.
As a child, I was always back and forth between my uncle’s shoe shop and my grandfather’s grocery store. I’d eat dinner with my aunt and uncle every Saturday night, then head to the shoe shop to shine shoes. We used a heavy duty rotational brush that shined the shoes quickly. My job was to load the shoes and flip the switch. I watched these beautiful, handmade shoes being created from beginning to end. And my Uncle Gus gave me a quarter at the end of each shift.
My grandfather taught me that business is family. Business is figuring out what your family needs and finding a way to provide it to them, forever. Business isn’t working for someone else, moving up the company ladder, or saving your pennies to buy luxury items. Business is about fulfilling the needs of the people you care about, and success comes from finding comprehensive solutions to their problems.
My grandfather taught me that hard work comes with reward. I’d spend an afternoon packing potatoes, and I’d come home with a quarter. I’d go out after dinner to shine a dozen pairs of shoes, and I’d come home with a quarter. I learned that treating people well and rewarding them for their work keeps them loyal and keeps them close. I followed my grandfather’s example for the rest of my life. His legacy, among others, lives in me.
Of course, our legacy is not only shaped by the values instilled in us by others. It is also shaped by our personal achievements and the pursuit of life goals. Inching towards our dreams, one opportunity at a time, defines so much of our daily lives. It influences where we live, who we surround ourselves by, what circumstances we are willing to tolerate, and what risks we take. Dreams don’t have to be lofty career goals. They could be pursuing the kind of family you want, or the type of place you want to live. They may be the way you organize your time or a special place you want to visit. What we want has an indelible influence on who we are.
After years of working in pharmacies, running side businesses, and reading everything about marketing that I could get my hands on, I found myself with one overarching goal: I wanted to meet E. Joseph Cossman. Referred to in the press as “The Messiah of the Free Enterprise System” Cossman was a leading thinker on small business development, especially mail order. Decades before Amazon ruled American consumer habits, Cossman made millions of dollars on everything from Spud Guns to Shrunken Heads with savvy business ingenuity. His marketing genius was legendary.
I had to meet him.
Some years ago I had a horse tack shop called “The Dressage Connection.” We sold whips, bits, sweet lumps, saddles, bridles, and other goods for English-style riding by mail order. My business partner knew all about horses, and I’d taught myself everything I could about mail order business. So together, we did well. We even sold goods to the US Equestrian Team. But, I just couldn’t get rid of this itch to meet my marketing hero. I’d read Cossman’s books at night after work and never ceased to be inspired. Finally, I took one of those legacy-influencing risks that would alter the course of my life.
I contacted Melvin Powers, the owner of one of the biggest publishing companies in America. I knew he was connected to E. Joseph Cossman because he’d published an ad in one of his publications. I’d also learned that Mr. Powers supported Johny Carpenter’s Heaven on Earth Horse Ranch for Disabled Children which was constantly short of supplies. I asked Mr. Powers if he’d be willing to make an introduction for me to E. Joseph Cossman. And surprisingly, he said yes. All he asked for in return was a donation to the kids’ horse ranch.
So, I closed my shop. I donated every last saddle, bit, and sweet lump to the ranch. My business partner wasn’t thrilled, but he knew it was going to a good cause. Mr. Powers had no idea I was doing this. He thought I’d send a few things his way, but I’d learned long before that whenever you want to sell something, you should make the offer as irresistible as possible. That way, there’s no doubt the answer will be yes. The offer is the beginning, middle, and end of every deal. It’s the most important thing by far.
Mr. Powers was shocked. He said he had no idea I was going to close my store and donate everything I had. He was thrilled. The kids at the ranch were happy. And, I had a direct line to one of my heroes — E. Joseph Cossman. That single act changed the course of my life.
The first time I met Joe Coss, as I would come to call him, was minutes after he’d stepped off a plane from Los Angeles. He shook my hand and said, “tell me something no one else knows about my business.” He always got right to the point. This man made millions of dollars on products no one else could sell. He wasn’t an inventor himself, but he knew how to spin a product to make it appealing. When I was a kid, I’d played with his Underwater Diver toy in the bathtub. Every kid I knew growing up had his Ant Farm. He turned around the faltering sales of the Spud Gun by partnering with potato growers after learning from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that the country was in the middle of the largest potato glut in 20 years. Then after selling 2 million units, he sold the remaining 70,000 in his inventory by reinventing it for a Mexican market as the “Papaya Gun.” The man was a genius.
Finally I said, “you had a product. It was an earring.”
He said, “yeah, go ahead.”
“It was an earring that the company couldn't sell by retail. It sat on the shelf for ages. They had it in retail stores for so long, and they didn't know how to get rid of it. The earring had a little bell. A clean, plain, tiny bell that was so crisp, when your head shook, and you had the earrings on, it sounded like a sweet little Tinkerbell.”
He said, “yeah, I know what you're talking about.”
I said, “You took that unsellable retail item and sold it by mail order. You called it ‘Mother-In-Law Earrings,’ and marketed it by telling consumers they would know when their mother-in-law entered the room by the ring of that tiny bell. You changed the message, and that’s what sold.”
And he said, “You're hired.”
It was these lessons from Joe Coss that I took with me my entire life. He left a legacy of creativity, ingenuity, and business shrewdness on millions of people, including me, and he did it by coming at a problem sideways. He never saw a product for what it was, or how it was performing. He saw it for what it could be.