For want of a belt, Ramon DeLeon almost didn’t get the part-time job delivering pizzas that launched his remarkable career. Fortunately for us, he overcame this hurdle just as he has so many before and since, becoming a highly successful businessman, not to mention the most effective practitioner of social media I’ve yet to meet.
How he got from delivering pizzas to delivering keynotes on social media is a fascinating tale of chutzpah and perseverance, of street smarts and tech savvy, providing a road map for any kid from any neighborhood, anyone willing that is to start small and think big. A two-part series, this first one focuses on the business lessons gleaned from an extensive interview with Ramon a few days ago.
Borrow a Belt (i.e. Do Whatever Else it Takes to Get Started)
Looking for a part-time job while still in school, DeLeon put in a cold call to a local Domino’s store. Having already delivered newspapers in the same Chicago neighborhood, DeLeon made his case well enough over the phone that they told him to show up for work the next day at 5pm. Arriving a half-hour early only to learn he’d lose the job if he didn’t find a belt to wear, DeLeon dashed to his sister’s to borrow a frilly ribbon number two-sizes too small, thus avoiding getting fired before he had even started.
Listening to DeLeon now, it is easy to downplay the significance of this little interlude. But if you’re a kid just getting out of school, you might want to take note. DeLeon was able to get his foothold in the industry that has made him highly successful by building up a portfolio of relevant experience, in this case delivering papers. When he got the opportunity to get in the next door, he didn’t let it slip by and instead scrambled to find a belt, however ridiculous it might have made him look that first day. He did whatever it took to get started.
Find the Joy in Pleasing Customers
DeLeon credits much of his success to his parents whom he described as his “biggest role models.” When DeLeon was in elementary school, his “blue-collar parents used to buy clothing wholesale and sell it at work or to friends.” He took note of the relationships they built with their friends and customers and tried to do the same when he started delivering pizzas. He paid attention to the smallest details, even how to park unobtrusively in driveways and how to ring doorbells to the customer’s liking.
When cellphones came along, DeLeon used them to improve the delivery experience, calling when no one answered the door. It wasn’t long before he’d get calls directly, saying “hey are you working today, we want to order pizza.” Like his parents, DeLeon was building strong ties with each of his customers, ties that distinguished him from his peers. At the same time, DeLeon found joy in pleasing customers, noting with pride, “it became a high for me, the excitement, the doorbell, the kids jumping and shouting ‘the pizza guy’s here!’”
Learn to Make the Pizza
After delivering pizza with aplomb for three years, his manager asked DeLeon to arrive early and open up the store since the shift manager was going to be late. Think Lou Gehrig filling in at first base for headache-pained Wally Pipp except for one key fact, metaphorically DeLeon didn’t know how to hit or catch. When the phone started ringing and orders arriving, DeLeon and another driver had no idea how to make a pizza but somehow they did just that.
When the manager did arrive, DeLeon exclaimed, “I don’t want to be in that situation again!” Taking time before and after his delivery shifts, DeLeon learned how to make the pizza and everything else the store sold. Shortly thereafter Domino’s asked DeLeon to join their management-training program. The lesson here for any of you starting out is clear–learn the business of the business even if it isn’t your primary job. In this way, when opportunity strikes, you’ll be able to jump in like DeLeon and Gehrig, relegating the Wally Pipp’s of the world to mere footnotes.
Take the Low Performing Store
Paying his dues as an assistant manager, DeLeon was working at one of the highest volume stores in Chicago when a manager spot opened up at an underperforming location. According to DeLeon, “there were other people more qualified to take over that store but no one wanted it.” Asked why he would want such a dog, DeLeon gamely offered, “When stuff is that low, the only thing you can do is look up.” Not surprisingly, DeLeon’s willingness to take on the bigger challenge paid off.
On the first day of the job, DeLeon somewhat brashly told his District Manager that his store was going to be off the underperformers list by the end of the week, even if that meant he had to buy the pizza himself. Knowing that he couldn’t transform the store alone, DeLeon “rounded up the right people who wanted to stay and let the others go who didn’t.” Having established his business goal and then put his team in place, DeLeon started a series of guerrilla marketing activities that helped his store set a nation wide Domino’s record for most consecutive weeks of sales growth.
Final Note: Ramon DeLeon did not have the advantage of an Ivy League education or social connections that would give him a head start. On the contrary, he started out at the proverbial bottom of the barrel, delivering pizzas on a part-time basis to pay for school. How he became a pioneering practitioner of social media is all the more remarkable and part 2 of this series (to follow later this week). This article first appeared on FastCompany.com
Drew is the CEO of Renegade, the digital & guerrilla marketing agency from New York City that helps clients make more out of less by transforming communications into “Marketing as Service.” @DrewNeisser