I remember going to visit my grandparents in Western Pennsylvania. It was every young lipstick wearing, perfume-dabbing, girl's, dream. My Grandma Dana had been an Avon lady back in the day and had an Avon room, where she kept all of her products. It smelled like perfume and was fully stocked with Avon lipsticks, blushers, powders, and whatnot.
I had just taken it for granted that she was an Avon lady, because that seemed like a good job for a mother in the '50s. The other Avon ladies I knew were all grandmotherly type people. It didn't seem out of the ordinary. But, I only just realized how enterprising she was. At one point, I learned, she supported her family of 5 with just her overstuffed Avon bag.
In the 1950s, my grandparents lived in a small steel town. My grandfather was a school bus mechanic and my grandmother was a school crossing guard. They were raising three children, my mother and her two siblings. As you can imagine, there wasn't a lot of spare anything.
The inevitable eventually happened, my grandfather injured himself at his dangerous job, and he found himself unable to work. Disability was a small pittance, and of course, grandma's job didn't pay enough for a family of five's expenses. I can't even imagine the desperation they must have felt.
Grandma knew she had to do something, but what? She took an AVON job, but it was a small town, with ladies that weren't exactly concerned about dressing up. How would she find clients? All the other AVON ladies were well established and had the market cornered. She knew that to succeed at this job would require some keen networking.
Where to even begin?
She had been advised to not waste her time selling to the older ladies. They would just talk your ear off for hours and not buy anything. Because this was "common knowledge" among the AVON staff, everyone avoided them.
But grandma, recognizing an untapped market, threw caution to the wind and spent time with them listening to their stories.
She made it clear that she was happy to sit and talk with them, but she was there first and foremost to sell. The hours she spent there were not in vain. They were so happy that she came to visit with them that they always bought a lot.
She did encounter some resentment from the other AVON ladies. Apparently, some of these "overlooked" clients were in other people's territories. They were just bitter because they hadn't thought of it.
She found another market when the neighborhood kids would come over to play with my aunt, uncle and mom. They loved to come over because Grandma Dana made the best doughnuts for them. So Grandma would find herself babysitting [and feeding] a slew of young kids. She used this as a marketing strategy. She set up a kiddie pool for the kids, let them play all afternoon, feeding them her doughnuts.
When the mothers came to pick them up, she hit them up for a sale. They rarely said no.
She also cornered the "wait 'til the last minute" market by stocking up and selling out of her home all day on every Christmas Eve. It was an ingenious way to endear herself to the public, as she "saved" many forgetful people. My mother recalls, "All day long, people came."
Sometimes a business model can come from unexpected places.
My grandmother was a natural. She had no formal training. She didn't even go to college. Yet she was a master at the art of networking and the sales followed. She is the best model I know for using what you've got, and breaking into untapped networks.