How a Stint at a Fortune 500 Company Helped Create the Side Hustle Nation

Michelle Jackson — Entry Level

For an expert on side gigs, Nick Loper’s first fulltime job was surprisingly straightforward. Loper grew up in Seattle, selling baseball cards and candy to other kids. These days he’s still modeling that entrepreneurial spirit with the Side Hustle Nation blog and The Side Hustle Show podcast. But before he could inspire thousands of readers and listeners to pursue “job-free income” he paid his dues at the company that defined 20th-century industry.

Michelle: What was your first job out of college?

Nick: I took a job with Ford, that was really the only offer that I had. Ford’s game plan at the time was to hire a bunch of new college grads to replenish their ranks. And their strategy was to move people far away from their homes with that kind of old-school mentality: “if we move people away they will be loyal to us because they won’t have any of their existing network or an existing friend base.”

Michelle: Were they moving you from Seattle to Michigan?

Nick: They moved me to Washington D.C., on the complete other side of the country, which was a really cool adventure for somebody who had never uprooted everything. And [Ford] was right, I didn’t have any friends outside of work … and that kind of led to the stuff that I’m doing now, all the different online business stuff because I had all that free time during the evening. What could I do to be more productive during that time? That’s what it was.

Michelle: Did you enjoy the work at Ford?

Nick: I was on the marketing and service side of the business. Ford makes business in three main ways: they sell cars, they sell parts, and they sell financing on those cars. I was … working with their dealerships to improve their service and parts business, treat customers better, get more aggressive on the retail side instead of relying on warranty work, and [I did] a little bit of consulting in that role and a lot of customer service.

The car business is really interesting and it didn’t take long until I was counting market share when I was at a stoplight. The dealership model of business was really interesting, all of the different revenue streams that they had. Being 22 or 23 years old and talking to [people who owned] these businesses for three or four generations. One guy had his franchise agreement literally signed by Henry Ford

Michelle: WHAT?

Nick: It was a very old-school industry that I hadn’t really imagined myself in, very different from the work that I was doing online on the side. But, it wasn’t an amazing cultural fit. This was an organization that really tried to drive home sales, quotas, you have to move this many bed liners by the end of the month. But, they didn’t act like a sales organization in terms of pay structure …. You weren’t going to see any benefit for that or gain in your paycheck for that. There was kind of a weird disconnect between the culture and how people were actually compensated.

““…the mentality that I tried to bring to my job was like look, I’m the CEO of my zone…””

Michelle: How much did you earn in that job?

Nick: Just under $50,000 a year

Michelle: What did it feel like to earn that?

Nick: It was cool, I’d never seen that kind of money before. They gave me a company car. So I didn’t have a car expense. In Atlanta [where Loper was transferred after D.C.], especially, that was a really good wage. In D.C. and San Francisco [the site of his last position with Ford], much less so. It was kind of fun to have money for the first time. And, naturally your lifestyle creeps up to that.

Michelle: Did you save your money?

Nick: I spent it on web development. As an employee you have a little bit more entrepreneurial runway to have that. You could look at your employer as your silent partner. They are silently backing your side projects. We spent a lot on plane tickets because I was in a long-distance relationship

Michelle: How many years did you work for Ford?

Nick: I was there for three years.

Michelle: What would you say is the number one life or business skill that you learned from Ford?

Nick: Well, a couple of things. In all of these different regions and branches of this company, I was assigned a territory. What I tried to do was adopt a mentality that even though I was at the bottom rung of this company—I could show up today or not show up today that would make zero impact to their bottom line—the mentality that I tried to bring to my job was like look, I’m the CEO of my zone. No matter what else was going on in other parts of the company, this is my territory, I’ve got to take care of these dealers, I’ve got to hit my numbers, and that was probably what stuck with me on a larger scale. You’ve got to be the CEO of your own life. Nobody else is going to make these decisions for you.

It was a people business, very old-school people business. You’re not going to please everybody but you have to get along. You’ve got to be able to at least talk to people. For me it was kind of intimidating to talk to these business owners who have been in business for four generations, as a 22-year old coming in and tell them, “I think you should do this this way, I think you should buy these parts.” They’re like: “Why should we listen to you? We’ve been doing this for decades.” But, then you kind of break through that shell. They’re just people. They want to serve their customers and keep people happy, and they want to make money at the end of the day. So, trying to figure out a way that spoke to those motivations has been helpful as well.

Michelle: When it’s time for your son to look for work, what would be your advice to him?

Nick: That you’ve got to be self-reliant. You can’t depend on some big corporation to be there for you for job security or for a paycheck. No harm in working for someone else as long as you’re learning and have the mentality that your employer is your biggest client. I think we’re transitioning towards that freelance economy more and more and that idea is accelerating. Who knows what the workforce is going to look like in 20 years, as he’s coming into it. But, hopefully, he’ll have an entrepreneurial spirit from mom and dad.

This interview has been edited and condensed