What We Can Learn from Kids Starting Businesses


So many reminders, including if they can jump into the fray, so can we


We spoke about the clothing line he wanted to start. He already had a name and logo idea. He had no start-up costs. His home already had a sewing machine and other supplies he could use. He’d begin using his old clothes for the material from which to fashion his new creations. He’d document his income and expenses in a notebook.

When we were done, I extended my hand and he shook it. It was a warm, beautiful, confident handshake, as good as the best I experience as a business owner.

“Great handshake!” I commended him.

“Thanks,” he smiled. “I practiced it for this.”

I recently began coaching and mentoring tentative entrepreneurs, budding small business owners, and Kids with Questions at the public middle/high school my son attends. Here’s what these students have reminded me about business.

 

Entrepreneurship takes many forms Some students have services (teaching a skill), some have products (clothing), some have digital products or apps (specialized research). Some go bespoke and niche (custom design and charms for Crocs…that’s a thing). Some are thinking big-picture and long-term (planning a business to help fund education and an eventual career). Some are addressing current events (connecting women with reproductive health services), some the needs of their classmates (This school needs a store where clubs can raise money!).

Some are solo businesses; some are joint ventures with friends; some are starting nonprofits; some are figuring out how to partner with larger entities; and some want to apply innovative and take-action thinking to their current endeavors.

These kids are finding ways of jumping into life and so can we. Just as adolescents are learning how to insert themselves into new streams of human activity, we can’t forget that that is the crux of it for us as solo pros and business operators. We must inject ourselves into the flux of business and human needs and activities and stay there participating.

A solo business can work for all personalities The students I meet with are moving their enterprises forward as themselves. Sure, there may be a “classic” entrepreneur personality, but these young people of various dispositions are all finding their own place in business. The dominantly creative, adventurous, and outgoing, but also the sensitive, the cautious, and the philosophical.

It’s the same for us. Our ventures our expressions of ourselves and we can build out our own businesses from where we are and who we are.

“Hasn’t it all been done before?” Kids worry that it’s all been done before and that there’s nothing new for them to do. Like many of us, they may be too focused on raw originality or creativity. Or that the grownups and big businesses have everything covered.

But we don’t have to serve up something radically fresh to have a viable business. The world and the humans who populate it have many of the same needs and desires year in and year out. And look around: if the grownups and big businesses have everything covered, why are so many things in shambles? How come things aren’t working right for large swaths of the population?

As unique human beings we each bring our own something-something to the economic pageant. In conducting business, we don’t need to re-invent wheel after wheel. Select a need, interest, desire from the grab bag and begin. Solve a problem in a better way.

Thinking it through helps One child was paid handsomely by his older brother to reach a certain level on his video game account. Another wanted to start a business selling phones because he had made a few hundred dollars selling his old phone. These were excellent money-making experiences, but they’re also hard to replicate as a business. One student came to coaching with a built-in answer to his own question: Even if there is a market for my product, what if I can’t easily or affordably let that limited audience know what I have available?

Not all good ideas or money-making one-offs can be turned into sustainable businesses. Thinking through business concepts and approaches on our own and with others exposes opportunities and weaknesses, some of which can and can’t be worked with.

“I don’t know how to…” The number one thing we can learn from teen business owners is to ask for help. Some of us are so stuck in lone-wolf or persist-at-all-costs mindsets. We can try and fail multiple times before getting the help we need — or we can borrow a page from the kids’ playbook and go straight to it: “I don’t know how to do x.” Can you help me? Who can help me? What do I need to know? What do I do next? How do I do that?

These savvy students know how to Google things and they know when search engines aren’t giving them what they need. That’s when they ask adults.

“I’m not good at…” Her voice was wispy and far away and I leaned in to hear her better, instinctually looking more intently at her face to grasp the words.

“I’m sorry,” this 12-year-old winner of an app contest told me, “I’m not good at eye contact.” I startled backwards both to get out of her face a bit and in surprise at the candor and self-awareness. It was vulnerable and a display of communication and emotional savvy. She shared what she wanted me to know and our conversation proceeded from there.

What if we all just admitted what we’re not good at in our businesses and go forward from there? Get the awkwardness out of the way. Deflate our anxieties. Work around our limitations. Accept help and and pursue alternatives as needed. Being not good at something doesn’t stop kids and it shouldn’t deter us either.

“But what if…?” The number one but what if? of students is What if adults don’t take me seriously? It makes sense that such thoughts cross young people’s minds but it catches me off guard. The students in front of me are so interesting, energetic, brave, creative, savvy, and inspiring. My response is usually some toned-down version of, Oh, f*!k adults, plus an exploration of what makes that a problem? and a discussion of limiting beliefs.

For most kids, the adult problem only comes up once, but for most of us, our limiting beliefs, straw men, bogey men, and excuses can be recurring and become real obstacles to getting what we want. Maybe we need to find our own version of Oh, f*!k adults.

Learn through exploration What else is easier for students than adults? Exploring. Experimenting. Trying and make mistakes. Learning from trial and error. Kids don’t like problems or failure either, but it lands differently for them than those of us a few decades into life. We can all take a cue from their openness, curiosity, gumption, and growth mindset. The learning groove of school is strong with them.

 

Finally, here’s what else students are doing with their ventures, and some of the points I make repeatedly to parents and school staff as I educate them about the value of entrepreneurship and business skills.

  • They’re putting something into place. In working on a business, teens learn to take action, involve themselves in the world, and create something of substance. It’s a terrific experience in personal effectiveness and a model for productive, meaningful adult activities.

  • Defensive entrepreneurship matters. Have you looked around lately? The world is unpredictable. We need a safety net, a weighted blanket, and a few layers of cushions. We need backup plans we can go to when times are tough, and entrepreneurship skills we can fire up as needed are a big piece of that.

  • They’re learning to trust themselves. And bet on themselves. To believe that they can solve problems. To understand that they have things to contribute to the world. To learn not just that they have valuable skills and ideas, but how to monetize those skills and ideas. To bring something of their own conception and making into reality.