At 19 I got a job bartending in a strip club in downtown Atlanta. If you can put aside any assumptions, I’ll share with you that it was as instructive about business as it was colorful and exciting for me.
Here are 5 big lessons I learned.
1. Not All customers are of equal value.
Of course the girls knew this. There were many who just ordered one drink and $20 in singles to tip the stage dancer. On the other end of the spectrum were business groups that might spend $400 on an overpriced bar tab and $2,000 in table dances and tipping.
What’s more impressive is that the owners of the club knew this. My club, The Brass Monkey, was only open M-F. All other adult clubs made their money on the weekends, but we catered to the business traveler crowd. They spent more and created a lot less problems for the girls. The club was built around this special type of customer.
“Best customer” is a core strategy we advise for our clients today at RMI. There is amazing operational and financial leverage gained from catering to your best customer segments. When you resonate more with them, they spend more and are more forgiving and more loyal.
2. Always keep track of the the money.
Cash was everywhere. On the floor, in the garters, stored in the locker room. It’s easy to steal. With the loud music and low lights it’s also easy to make a mistake. In a strip club keeping track of the money prevents disputes between dancers, and makes a bartender extra valuable.
It’s an environment rife with distrust.
Now I translate that to being honest and never gouging a customer or a vendor. Very often tension develops around the money in a business transaction and it distracts from just getting the good work done. Be transparent and keep track of the money and the tension goes away.
3. Differentiation creates value.
A “gentleman’s” club can’t be made up of cloned Barbie dolls. Customers had different preferences that went beyond hair color. Some liked tall dancers, others petite or more talkative. Each girl, in order to compete for tips, needed to stand out. They had to find the type of guest who liked their style, look or approach to the job. One regular bar customer who was a wealthy real estate building owner only liked girls who could talk about business - a rare talent in that environment. The girls who could chat with him about his day got tipped very well — more geisha-like than slutty stripper.
A few years ago I was shocked to discover that many digital agencies made the same claims as we did and even used the same words. We had trouble standing out. Now, differentiating ourselves at the strategy and consulting level is of primary importance and it resonates with clients much better.
4. Beware of the Mean Stripper.
At the Brass Monkey we had three bartenders. The slickest one, Mark, drank a lot on the job and dated a very experienced dancer named Smoky. Smoky was in her 40′s and had a lot of regulars who followed her from previous clubs. She was known. She was also much more of a “I’m the queen bitch” around here instead of being the maternal figure of experience. She was was mean, but she earned a lot of money, didn’t have to work that hard, and was not to be crossed. In about my third month of working there, the manager came to me to talk about liquor costs and money. He said the liquor costs had spiked and since the customer count had not exploded he suspected that a bartender was stealing. He asked for my help observing what happens and within a week it became clear Mark was pouring and pocketing frequently throughout the night. He was stealing and his register and bottle count at his end of the night told the tale. The manager fired him at the end of the next shift.
Well, as you can imagine, my implication in discovering the theft made Smoky angry at me for getting her thieving boyfriend fired. Over the next month she set about creating conflict and complaining about me; what I said, my inexperience in a strip club, and then she feigned offense one night about something I said. If you must know, she had a boob job and I, hoping to stay in her eroding good graces, commented that they looked fantastic.
That was it. She explained to the boss that I made her uncomfortable and that she would find another club unless I was fired. The GM’s parting words to me were: “I hate to let you go ‘cuz you’re such a hard worker and you don’t steal, but it’s much easier to find a young guy who will bartend in a strip club than it is to find a girl to take her clothes off for money.”
That’s the only job I’ve ever been fired from.
In the world of business, with millions or billions of revenues at stake, with careers and promotions in the balance, big companies are filled with agendas and politics. Finding the powerful stake holds and serving them is the key to success. Just be advised that your solution may be dislocating a stakeholder who is clever and spiteful and will work to get you ousted. The best solution, the honest vendor, or the hardest worker may not be as valuable to management as a star performer. Watch out for the people who drive the revenues — they usually get their way in the end.
5. What happens to you Also happens for you.
As a 19 yr old bartender in a strip club, I was making the equivalent of $150k in cash in today’s dollars. I had dropped out of GA Tech because of a lack of money and had planned to go back with my building savings account. By getting fired, I ended up getting a real estate license and never went back to school. From there I learned how to sell, negotiate, prospect, and I met my partners who backed Response Mine in 2001! This wouldn’t have happened if I’d stayed a bartender. Getting fired turned out to be a wonderful thing.
What happens to you is neither good or bad, it just “is” and the universe is unfolding as it should for you. And every experience you have accumulates to influence the next one just like these five lessons.
(P.S. Smoky got fired about six months after I did and they called me back to work. I didn’t go back, but the bonus lesson was one for the Brass Monkey and for you. #6 Never fire a loyal, hardworking, honest employee just because a prima donna says so. As long as you have a good fit to role and the employee provides value — work to keep them.