Coder, caretaker, programmer: first jobs of U.S. entrepreneurs

NEW YORK Fri Dec 6, 2013 8:55am EST

Nate Blecharczyk of Airbnb (L-R), Leah Busque of TaskRabbit, Brit Morin of Brit & Co., and John Zimmer of Lyft speak on stage during day one of TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2012 event at the San Francisco Design Center Concourse in San Francisco, California September 10, 2012. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Nate Blecharczyk of Airbnb (L-R), Leah Busque of TaskRabbit, Brit Morin of Brit & Co., and John Zimmer of Lyft speak on stage during day one of TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2012 event at the San Francisco Design Center Concourse in San Francisco, California September 10, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Stephen Lam

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - What was your first job ever?

At Reuters we have been asking prominent Americans that very question, to coincide with the nation's monthly jobs reports. The results have been both surprising and revealing.

There have been family affairs: media personality Tavis Smiley worked for his dad, cleaning buildings around an Air Force base in Bunker Hill, Indiana, late into the night.

There have been slices of forgotten Americana: Vanguard founder Jack Bogle toiled as a manual pinsetter in a fire-hall bowling alley in Sea Girt, New Jersey.

And there have been those jobs that seemingly came out of left field: "CBS This Morning" co-host Norah O'Donnell made English-language learning tapes for middle schoolers in South Korea.

This time, we figured we would ask a few top entrepreneurs about their first jobs ever. In an era when 9-to-5 lifetime company gigs have all but disappeared, these folks were able to create their own opportunities, and build their futures from scratch.

Who better to ask about how they got their start?

Name: Clara Shih

Title: CEO & founder, Hearsay Social

First Job: Computer programmer

"I was a big physics geek in high school, learning about quantum mechanics and relativity and doing graduate-level coursework. So at 17, between my junior and senior years, I got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work at the Fermi National Accelerator Lab in Batavia, Illinois.

"I did two things there: I developed script to analyze large data sets, because particle accelerators generate lots of data that needs to be sliced and diced. Then I created a website for members of the public, to help them understand the work being done at the Fermi lab.

"At the beginning I was pretty overwhelmed, and ended up feeling demoralized because I really didn't want to mess up. Once they caught me playing solitaire on the computer, and I've never been so mortified in my life. That moment changed me, and taught me to take initiative and always do more than the bare minimum.

"So I did recover from the solitaire incident. But I must say: I'm a really good player."

Name: Gary Vaynerchuk

Title: CEO, Vayner Media; author, "Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook"

First Job: Baseball card salesman

"I grew up in the late 1980s, when there was a big baseball card boom. Every single boy in my school collected baseball cards. So having my entrepreneurial DNA, I started my own business renting tables at card shows.

"I must have had several thousand cards, as a result of buying packs, trading with my friends, and borrowing a thousand bucks from my dad. I even used my lunch money; whatever it took. I don't think I actually ate lunch in the 7th or 8th grades, although I never told my parents that.

"My first card show was at a mall in Philipsburg, New Jersey, back in 1989, and my two buddies and I rented a table for a few days for $300. On the opening day alone we made $500. Once I got that first taste of being an entrepreneur, it was all over.

"Everything I learned about business, I learned from selling those baseball cards. Standing in front of a table, watching how customers responded, marketing, negotiating, interacting with competitors: That was the foundation of all my professional success."

Name: Henry Blodget

Title: CEO & editor-in-chief, Business Insider

First job: Tennis court caretaker

"My first job with an actual paycheck was brushing, rolling, and watering clay tennis courts. I think I was 12. I got paid $3.75 an hour, which seemed like a lot.

"We had to get there at 7 a.m. and lug around 50-pound bags of calcium chloride and crushed rock to replace all the stuff that had blown away. But after we finished, we could sack out on the rest of the bags in the maintenance shed.

"All in all, not a bad transition to the working world."

Name: Nate Blecharczyk

Title: Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer, Airbnb

First job: Coder

"In Boston when I was 12, I was home sick from school one day and grabbed a book off my dad's shelves about how to write computer programs. That's when I first taught myself how to code. It started as a hobby, and it became a job.

"That's because when I was 14, a consultant saw all the work I was posting online, and said he would pay me $1,000 to create a program for him. At that age, it was a whole lot of money. I started creating more programs for more people, and eventually over the next few years made enough money to pay for college.

"For my parents, it was all a little weird. I would give them financial reports at the end of each quarter. I was a teenager walking around with checks for thousands and thousands of dollars, and they were like, 'What's going on here?!'

(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)

(Follow us @ReutersMoney or here Editing by Lauren Young and Andrew Hay)

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