Bullish: What I Learned About Business From Selling Girl Scout Cookies (i.e., Not What The Girl Scouts Had In Mind)

I was a Girl Scout. From first or second grade through sixth or seventh, I wore the uniforms and earned the badges and participated in ceremonies that involved walking over a small wooden bridge.

And, of course, I sold cookies.

I’m definitely a supporter of the Girl Scouts now. They’re outclassing the Boy Scouts by a million miles on LGBT rights and on just generally belonging to the modern world. And now it’s cookie time! Ever modern, the Girl Scouts are testing a gluten-free cookie, and they’ve adopted the hashtag #cookieboss.

Here’s a Tweet from Girl Scouts CEO Anna M. Chávez:

Girl scout tweet

Hmmn, interesting.

I sold cookies every year. I don’t think I learned much about business, though, because Girl Scouts only do sales, and the terms of the sale are more or less fixed. You can’t experiment with three-for-two specials, or earlybird pricing, or closeouts at the end of the season. You can’t buy ad space and test a coupon campaign.

More fundamentally, I didn’t learn much about business from selling cookies because I had no access to information about what it costs to produce a box of cookies — ingredients, labor, packaging, transportation, etc. — and how the price of a box of cookies was determined. Who bakes the cookies? Are the workers receiving a fair wage? What do they do the rest of the year? Let’s talk about unions.

In fact, I would have learned more about business running a regular bake sale — you’d soon learn that brownie mixes are much more expensive than buying ingredients and using a recipe, and you’d have to do a bit of math to figure out how many brownies you can bake from a certain quantity of ingredients, and therefore what you’d have to charge to make a profit. On the second day, faced with disappointing profits, you might decide to cut the brownies a little smaller rather than raising the price. Eventually, you might cut the brownies so small that you wonder at the monster you have become. Lessons!

(For a good business lesson, look at why some Girl Scout cookie varieties have two names — it turns out that the Girl Scouts don’t own the trademarks to the iconic cookie names. Oh, that’s a little embarrassing, ladies.)

I did learn a few things from selling cookies, though.

I was ambitious, of course. Every year, as my troop began its campaign, I resolved to sell THE MOST COOKIES.

Not only do the profits from selling cookies support the local council’s activities, the girls themselves receive “points” that are redeemable for prizes. They gave us little catalogues full of charm bracelets and stuffed animals and radios, and at the end was some totally crazy prize that was probably unwinnable — a billion points and your whole family goes to Disneyworld! In a hovercraft!

(I googled “Girl Scout cookie prizes,” and the same incentive system seems to be at work today, although at the council, rather than national, level. This council‘s “Extreme Entrepreneur” awards include “1500 Club: A summer camp session at Rock Hill or a Kindle Fire.” It all has a sort of multi-level-marketing sheen to it, no? Diamond level, anyone?)

I sometimes circled the prizes I was most interested in. How motivational!

It was actually really demoralizing. I remember pounding the pavement for days and days, and returning to Wednesday’s Girl Scout meeting having sold seventy-some boxes of cookies! And every year, some bitchy girl had sold like four hundred boxes. How? How on earth was it possible?

It took me a few years to figure this out, but I was in a Girl Scout troop with some rich girls who always won all the cookie competitions because their dads took the order forms to work, and all the dads’ employees ordered cookies, and also because, in their neighborhoods, people ordered things from kids just to be nice.

(See also: Bullish: Social Class in the Office.)

In my neighborhood, people mostly told us they didn’t have any money, shouted at us, or pretended not to be home. (My dad was in the military; he informed me that there were very specific regulations against trying to sell things to other members of the military. People did sometimes break the rules for kids’ school fundraisers, but my dad did not join the military to break the rules. My mom sold Avon and had the same kinds of problems I did.)

Girl Scouts often sell cookies in groups, for safety. One year, I went around the neighborhood with two sisters. We took turns ringing the bell, doing the talking, and taking the sale, should one materialize. The younger sister was in kindergarten, and she was predictably adorable, as kindergarteners in tiny uniforms tend to be. She rang the bell on a house, and was greeted by a large, angry man who opened the door and shouted in her face, “NO SOLICITING! CAN’T YOU READ THE SIGN?!”

The door slammed shut. “Wow, no,” said her sister, towards the door. “She can’t read. She’s five.”

(I’ll also add that years of SAT tutoring have clued me in to the fact that even most teenagers do not know the meaning of the word “soliciting,” and in fact, many of them have it confused with “loitering.”)

That guy was pretty mean, although certainly not as bad as the guy who pointed a gun at his friendly neighborhood Girl Scout. Despite getting yelled at by a grown man for basically no reason, though, I don’t think any of us cried. So maybe we learned some fortitude. You know how many women are held back their entire lives because they habitually avoid conflict? Maybe it’s good to learn early on that getting yelled at by someone more powerful than you isn’t really that bad, and having friends around you certainly helps. I’m not sure about this one as a life lesson, though, considering the little girl who got a gun pulled on her. Maybe I wouldn’t sell cookies in any Stand Your Ground state. Mixed feelings here.

Another year, a troop leader picked up some girls from my neighborhood and drove us to a rich neighborhood to sell cookies. It was actually a pretty good idea and went much better. Maybe I learned a lesson about prequalifying. It’s easier to sell nonessential items to people who obviously have disposable income. Years later, I learned in a college rhetoric class that neuroscientific research has demonstrated that people make decisions based on how they want to see themselves. People who want to see themselves as genteel neighborhood patrons make excellent marks for Girl Scout cookies.

Despite the trip into Fancyville, though, I was never able to sell enough cookies to feel like I was any good at it. It was sheer drudgery, actually, having to go deliver all the cookies after having it brought home just how much I sucked compared to the girl who sold 400 boxes (and knowing that that girl probably had to deliver very few of those boxes, since most of them were headed to her dad’s office).

This was an early glimpse for me into the world outside school not even pretending to be a meritocracy.

It’s good to figure this out sooner rather than later. This keeps you from ending up yet another underemployed person with two masters degrees, or just another smart, underpaid person who keeps making excellent contributions and then just waiting, forever, to be recognized and rewarded after the fact. Or someone who works harder than anyone else — at a game that was never meant to allow you to win.

If someone has already printed up a catalog of incentives for you, you are not in charge of your own life. Stop signing up for things, stop applying for things. Make your own opportunities. Sell your own products. Make your own job — start your own company, or pitch yourself to companies that don’t know they need you. Find a need and fill it. It’s easiest to compete when you designed the contest. If someone has already made a funnel for you — you start here, and you fill out this form, and you write an essay, and there’s an interview, and then you compete with lots of other people doing just the same thing, and maybe you beat them — then it’s usually a losing game, even if you win. Who made the funnel?

Girls are often encouraged to be rule-following, teachers-pet, straight-A students. It’s good to get a slap in the face as soon as possible to the effect that this will not work in American capitalism. I mean, it’ll probably work well enough to keep you employed and a stable and functioning member of society. But not well enough to be competitive with the entrepreneurs, rule-breakers, risk takers, and skate-through-life bros who don’t get trapped in petty systems.

I still support the Girl Scouts, of course. They recently took some heat — and are being boycotted by pro-lifers! — for linking to an article that praised Wendy Davis. I praise Wendy Davis! I anti-boycott the Girl Scouts, by purchasing cookies when I would not have otherwise! They freeze well and make excellent gifts! Especially to conservatives who hate women’s rights but love cookies and will then feel conflicted while eating them!

But the business lessons I learned from selling cookies weren’t quite the ones the Scouts intended.



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