Start as a Kid
How old do you have to be to start a business? If you are a kid with a business, should you have to have older partners? Will customers take you seriously if you are a kid-run business? How do you know if what you are doing as a kid is a business or a hobby? Do you even know how to spell the word, “entrepreneur,” when you are kid? Are entrepreneurs born not made?
I don’t know the answers. I didn’t start a business as a kid. I was busy with sailing, horses and 4-H, and business was not on my immediate radar. Entrepreneurship wasn’t even a possibility since I didn’t know any entrepreneurs or even what the word meant. But in my interviews with the young entrepreneurs featured on this blog, I realize that many of them trace their entrepreneurial origins to starting something as a kid.
Coming up in the next few weeks (profiles published every Tues and Thurs) are stories about people like David Chen (Duostack), who started his first business at age 11. He used to bring his dad to business meetings. Often the client would think, “how cute; the father brings his son to a business meeting.” In actual fact, however, David was bringing his father to the meeting to give him some legitimacy. “Who wants to do business with an 11 or 12 year old,” he questions?
Like many of the young entrepreneurs I am interviewing, David’s story starts with the modern-day lemonade stand – web design and hosting. When the world wide web became a viable means of marketing and doing business, many firms and businesses simply did not know where to start. Turning to high school students and even to middle school students who had mastered state-of-the-art technology for the day became acceptable practice. And young people found a treasure trove in their hobby of learning how to design, code and launch websites. A business was born by matching resources and skills with a need. Some of these businesses grew such that young people, like David, were able to put themselves through college!
Arthur Tu (LearnBop) also started with the technology generation’s version of the lemonade stand. A youth or 13 in Taiwan, he got together with some other programmers. “Our business idea was incredibly simple,” Arthur recounts. “We basically would get together, pick cases, and work on them. We built websites for people who needed them. It was fun.” Then the group realized that they could put up their own websites to further drive business. Still a high school student, while the others in the group were a bit older, Arthur wasn’t interested in growing a business so much as having fun with technology. And he was really interested in education. So he built a tutorial website: “I wrote computer tutorials for people to read. It was kind of a how-to for computers.” Arthur’s site became one of the top ranked IT tutorial sites at the time, and attracted the attention of Cisco in Taiwan, which asked Arthur to put up promotional information for their programming competitions and classes. But they never charged ad money for the promotions. As Arthur put it, “we saw this as a service to bring more people to the IT scene.” The site died out as Arthur approached college age, “after Google came along, tutorials were still relevant, but people got used to writing dispersed tutorials on blogs and expressing know-hows in Q&A form, letting search engines do the indexing and organization, as opposed to building and maintaining hefty document bases, so the idea of tutorial sites became more or less obsolete.”
Rick Cancelliere (JDAnthony) also started by building websites at a time when kids embraced the new paradigm of the Internet way before many adults and small business owners. Growing up, Rick had no idea what entrepreneurship was. But his entrepreneurial path started when he was 14. Through his church, Rick as exposed Global Expeditions, a program for young teenagers to participate in missions to Thailand, Africa, Brazil, Haiti, and other underprivileged areas to help people. Rick’s family had no money; he was raised by his grandmother. As a kid, Rick had hand-me-down clothes; he never went to Disney World like his friends. But his grandmother was encouraging. So, when young Rick announced that he was going to Thailand, she said, “go.” Of course, he had to raise the money. And that’s where it started – the journey.
Rick really wanted to go to Thailand, and making money himself was the only way to get him there. Burger King would hire him, but Ron quickly realized that he couldn’t make enough money to go to Thailand. So, he looked around him and started asking questions. He asked the parents of his friends “How do you make money?” One of his friend’s dad’s was an entrepreneur. Rick didn’t realize this at the time, but the guy had started off cleaning city buses and grew into a home builder with his own construction firm which had done very well financially over the years. This dad saw something in young Rick and encouraged the eager teenager to find something that he could do that he could build value. Rick remembers, “He told me that working for an hourly wage was not in the cards for me.”
The Internet was relatively new in those days and Rick was like a sponge, soaking it up. He learned all about the Internet, websites, and he met someone at church who was a designer. They started working on websites. They offered to build free websites for people in order to build a portfolio. To raise money for his international venture, Rick decided to have a food drive. He wanted a particular band to play at the event and he offered to build them a website if they would come and play. The food drive brought in about 700 turkeys which ended up bringing in enough money to really help Rick along the way towards his goal. What he was really learning was how to motivate people; how to make money. And his website business was launched. He started telling everyone that he was building websites. By the time he was 15, he was doing websites, logos, and other electronic design activities. Rick has since embarked on several other ventures and put himself through college.
As a high school student, Bill Erikson (Bill Erikson WordPress Consulting) was lucky enough to be given a car by his parents. And he wanted to play his iPod in his car. But how to do that was not at all obvious. So Bill created a website that aggregated all of the information that he was collecting on how to synch an iPod to sound systems in cars. The site highlighted step by step guides, reviews, a photo gallery, and anything that others were doing to get their iPods to work in a car. Bill was reluctant to call “iPod-in-Car” a business, but he was making a lot more money for the effort than most of his friends were at their part-time jobs. Using Google’s AdSense and Amazon’s affiliate program, working one hour on a weekend was producing $50.
Then it was time to go to college, and Bill had a startup idea, one that required a small amount of seed capital. That made Bill think about reaping some value from iPod-in-Car. Bill approached iLounge – an iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad and Apple TV resource for news, reviews, forums, tips, tutorials, software and more – about posting the site for sale. iLounge offered to buy it, and Bill had a $3,000 exit. Seems small, but when you think about it, at 18, a few thousand is a lot of seed money.
Others, such as Josh Kresge (Kinertia), chose the more traditional route of mowing lawns, shoveling snow and other labor-intensive tasks that adults like to pawn off onto kids for a few bucks. But he found a better opportunity while still a high school student that stemmed from his love of hammocks. At the time, you could buy hammocks online but you had to go to a particular brand’s online store. Josh couldn’t find one online store for multiple brands of hammocks; thus Hammock Hutch was born. Josh was not focused on making Hammock Hutch a huge success. He built it quickly because he knew that he needed to go through two or three businesses before he would find success. Josh was impatient and he wanted to get through the process of several businesses that he expected to be failures so that he could move on to the “real” business, which he hopes is his current venture, Kinertia. Nonetheless, Hammock Hutch is still doing fine and helped to pay for Josh’s college.
Still other young people, like Luke Skurman (College Prowler) and Krista Paul (Usingmiles.com), were enterprising young people who sold candy to friends on the school bus. “I had dance class and I would go next door and buy all of this candy and then up-sell it to my friends on the bus for a 200%margin,” Krista exclaimed! Luke bought candy at Cosco with his mom and then sold it to his friends on the school bus when he was in middle school. He went on to sell ice cream and pretzels from a street cart and, still in his teens, Luke had his own hot dog stand on the streets of San Francisco.
Similarly, David Mitchell (Course Six) started really early. An immigrant with his family from Russia to the U.S., David started a paper route at age 9, delivering papers to the other apartments in his building. Instilled with a strong work ethic from his parents who espoused the philosophy that one should always be working, young David recognized the connection between doing more and getting more. David’s ambition took off from the paper route and he has since been Looking for opportunities to succeed and apply himself. In middle school, David started working in software. He worked as a tester, then as a developer from 8th grade on. In 10th grade, David and two buddies started a company to build websites. He carried this activity on through high school until David left for college. Because his friends were not going to college, David turned the business over to his partners.
Ron Cygnarowicz (Pure Start Energy), has a different story. He became the youngest sanctioned bowler. His father bowled, and at the age of one, Ron wanted to bowl. At age one and a half, he was in a bowling league. Ron became well known – he was on television shows and lots of articles were written about him. During his pre-teen years, he traveled the world. While Ron doesn’t bowl anymore, he insists that the experience “instilled or sparked something entrepreneurial in me; it set a precedent, that I have to do something above and beyond anyone else.” Ron’s father died when he was 10, and, during his high school years, his mother endured financial difficulty. Ron took a look around at his friends’ parents and realized that the richer ones were self-employed. So he determined to start a business. While Ron says that the venture “was not a real business,” his foray into multi-level marketing, selling neutraceuticals and vitamins to family and friends, taught him how to sell and how to “think like a business person.” This entrepreneurial grounding has been the foundation for future ventures in college and beyond.
Some entrepreneurs didn’t start businesses as a kid but gave their expertise or products away. Yet these experiences established a base of using technology to solve problems. As a 15 year-old in the U.K., Rahul Vohra (Rapportive) knew that he wanted to grow a software company. He got the idea because he saw a retail store where he bought games go from one store to a few hundred in a couple of years. To young Rahul, starting and growing a company seemed very doable. Both of his parents are doctors. They make good money, and Rahul never wanted for anything. But, he says “they work like crazy. They have a great life between their research, work, and teaching, but they are slaves.” Rahul didn’t want that route for himself. Rationally he knows that entrepreneurship can break that cycle. Now 26, Rahul has been doing startups for a while. He is passionate about software. Rahul has been making software for ages. He started programming at age 10. Young Rahul made lots of physics-oriented products that were downloads which he gave away for free. Because he loved programming, he loved making things for people. He made products that people actually used. While none of these was a business, the kernel of becoming an entrepreneur was established.
The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter what age you are when you start an entrepreneurial venture. The ramp up is steep, no matter what the age. Starting early might be an advantage to budding entrepreneurs because you learn some of the hard lessons early, and you likely learn them without losing other people’s money. Starting early also helps to build the network that is so valuable to all entrepreneurs, who know that we cannot do it alone, and that it’s often more important who you know rather than what you do.
The stories above are not always about the entrepreneurial success that you can achieve at a young age, which of course you can, but they are mostly about how the entrepreneurial spirit is born, how it can get sparked out of necessity (Rick Cancelliere and Ron Cygnarowicz), from a hobby (David Chen and Rahul Vohra), because of a personal passion (Josh Kresge and Bill Erikson), or simply from a few buddies getting together to do technical stuff for fun (Arthur Tu and David Mitchell).
The young entrepreneurs featured on New Venturist are admirable for their constancy and persistence. They are all driven by the desire to create new products and services, and they are technology-savvy in the extreme. That familiarity with technology and the knowledge of how to use it and make it useful to others has spawned a brave new world of entrepreneurs who see website creation and related services as the modern day version of the lemonade stand (Not to detract from actual lemonade stands: for example, Michael Holthouse, an entrepreneur who wants children to be ready for the real world, founded Prepared 4 Life, and has developed an innovative Lemonade Day concept where millions of kids across the U.S., especially inner-city children, start and run actual lemonade stands.
And there is nothing quite like achieving some success and a few degrees of freedom when you are young, before college age. While some kids are focused on plumbing their social networks as a 24/7 experience, others, like Luke Skurman and Krista Paul, used their early money-making skills to help guide them in career directions so that they can end up being where they want to be.
I doubt that there is an entrepreneurial gene, or that there is really any commonality among personality types to be an entrepreneur, even of a particular generation. But, as evidenced by the stories above, many entrepreneurs start early. Really early. At a young age, we are all influenced by our environment and by our encounters with others. Who is to say that a relationship with an older entrepreneurially-minded mentor wouldn’t have turned many of us to the independent pursuit of our own business at a similar age as those presented here? And, if my interviewees are representative of their generation, then can we conclude that the desire to be an entrepreneur, to be in charge of one’s own destiny, to create and build value, and to enjoy the benefits thereof, is increasing exponentially?
These youngest entrepreneurs are the ones who will create and control the brave new world of the future. And they are not patiently waiting until it is their turn. They are seizing opportunity and creating this world now. They are not our future – they are really our present!