Adventures in Business
Part I

My collegiate foray into the glamorous world of the modern umbrella salesman was an unmitigated disaster. About two weeks into my first semester, it became clear that I was going to need a steady supply of cash in order to pay for beer, pizza, and cockfight wagering—the three staples of the Ivy League experience.

But on-campus jobs for non-work-study students were hard to come by, and my parents, already none-too-pleased at having to pay $35,000 per year for my tuition, couldn’t be persuaded to finance my extra-curricular debaucheries. So, naturally, my thoughts turned to crazy, sitcomish money-making schemes—and buying and selling a whole lot of umbrellas was at the top of my list.

The umbrella business seemed perfect for a lazy man like myself. I could buy 100 umbrellas wholesale for about $150 from a disreputable online retailer. My keen observational eye had led me to conclude that very few students actually owned umbrellas. All I had to do, I figured, was mark up the price to about ten dollars per umbrella, stand outside during a rainstorm (it rained about 300 days per year at Cornell), and wait for the money to come rolling in. What could be easier?

Just about anything, it turned out. The entire enterprise was doomed from the beginning, when I opened the box and realized that these were the worst umbrellas ever. Flimsy, small, constructed of porous black plastic and defect-riddled aluminum, these were the Little Umbrellas that Couldn’t.

In order to sell them, I tried several sales techniques, all of which were dishonest. “Buy yourself an umbrella,” I shouted. “High-quality; made in the USA!” (they were neither). I would stand outside the student union and lie about the weather forecast. “75% chance of rain tomorrow,” I’d say, smiling insincerely. “You’ll be sorry if you’re caught without one of these affordably-priced umbrellas.” Nobody listened.

Pricing was my main problem. I dramatically overestimated the number of college kids who actually had ten dollars. Yet, rather than lowering the price, I clung to my dreams of instant riches and convinced myself that there was a market for overpriced, crappy umbrellas. I paid for my stubbornness.

In the end, I only sold four umbrellas—three to foreign nationals who didn’t really understand what I was saying, and one to an alcoholic friend who wouldn’t have noticed if it was raining or not. Towards the end, I became a pathetic figure: hanging around the dorm’s entrance at all hours, weakly harassing anyone who’d come in. Eventually, everyone started using the back door.

Finally I gave up, and, in a tearful midnight ceremony, tossed my surplus umbrellas into the gorge, where they undoubtedly disintegrated because they came into contact with water. Two months later, I got a job with the intramurals office. It paid well and they gave me a free T-shirt. What more could I ask?

-Justin Peters

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