Do we really need more entrepreneurs?
Small businesses really are the backbone of the economy. Almost half of the US’s private sector workforce (49.2%) is employed by small business, and for the last twenty years, small businesses have been responsible for creating two out of every three (64%) of net new jobs.
Some of the most important innovations in the last century have come about because of scrappy entrepreneurs (Remember, Steve Jobs started Apple in his basement).
Small businesses also lead the way in innovation. A study conducted by the Small Business Administration found that small businesses produced 16 times more patents per employee compared to larger patenting firms.
We’ll always need doctors, lawyers and accountants, but we sure as hell need entrepreneurs, too.
Which is why we need to think about how we can pay it forward and help inspire, mentor, and empower girls and boys to think like early entrepreneurs.
What inspired me to be an entrepreneur
When I was younger I never thought I wanted to own a business.
Some of my entrepreneurial friends had parents who owned businesses, but not me. My dad was a maintenance worker, my mother a nurse, and neither of them felt owning a business was a viable career move.
My parents knew that 8 out of 10 entrepreneurs who start businesses fail within the first 18 months, and that failure rate was enough to scare them into scaring me away from the thought of starting one.
But when I was 14 my friend was looking to pass off his newspaper route, the job that funded his much-coveted video game and action figure collection. I was too young to get a job at a fast-food joint so wanting some financial independence for video games of my own, I asked him if I could take it over.
For more than three years I would spend over an hour delivering newspapers after school every day of the week and early in the morning on weekends.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my paper route job was preparing me for entrepreneurship:
- I had to be self-motivated to work. I didn’t have a boss calling me if I was late delivering. If I couldn’t do my route for some reason, like if I was sick or had a band practice after school, I had to hire one of my friends or my parents to cover it for me (and yes, my parents accepted the payment).
- It was up to me to collect payments from customers since the Mail-Star would subtract their cut from my bank account automatically. I got to keep the profit. I needed to do some basic bookkeeping to make sure I wasn’t getting ripped off.
- I had to keep customers happy, deal with a bunch of different personality types, and sell subscriptions to new customers.
- I even cross-sold to customers, asking them if they needed their lawn cut during the summer months when they were away on vacation.
Newspaper routes are a great tool for teaching kids entrepreneurship. I cherish the experience, despite the click in my left shoulder I still have today from carrying the 100-pound bag uphill.
I may have ended up owning a business regardless, but this experience gave me a lot of the skills I needed later on.
The problem with school
Grade school highly discourages entrepreneurial thinking.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the most successful entrepreneurs were B students who later dropped out of college. As mentioned before, non-college graduate entrepreneurs include Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Larry Ellison, just to name a handful.
The school system wants students to focus on the task assigned, not go off and dream up their own projects or become child entrepreneurs. Following direction is rewarded, and deviating from it or colouring outside the lines, so to speak, is met with punishment.
Guidance counsellors often encourage kids to pursue traditional careers, ones that require university education. There is very little talk of starting a business.
I am not saying education isn’t important, or that I’m representing every teacher in every school system in the world. Of course, math, English and science are important. Of course, plenty of teachers inspire kids to follow their dreams.
Instead, I believe the school system as a whole discourages entrepreneurial thinking on a fundamental level; they prepare students to become good employees.
Entrepreneurial traits, like risk predilection and rebelliousness (a trait also common to teenagers coincidentally enough) are generally considered negative, and are suppressed rather than nurtured.
Successful entrepreneur and angel investor, Dan Martel went to jail and rehab as a teenager before starting his first business at 18 and turning his life around.
Dan has said many times that computers literally saved his life. Could it be that his mentors were able to harness his reckless energy rather than condemn it? That they nurtured his rebelliousness as a quality that could be used for good instead of telling him to fall in line?
I’m not going to pretend for a minute that I know more than professional educators. All I know is what I’ve experienced first-hand, what other people have shared about what shaped them to be child entrepreneurs, and how they teach it to their own kids.
So how do we teach kids entrepreneurship?
In his awesome Ted Talk, Cameron Herald talks about the various businesses he made for himself as a kid, like selling coat hangers to dry cleaning businesses, and buying comic books from poor kids to sell at a profit to rich kids. It’s worth watching the entire video.
You may or not have children of your own, but even if you’re an uncle/aunt, or have friends with kids, you can play a role in their lives. You can inspire them to be an entrepreneur when they grow up.
Here are some key entrepreneurial traits Cameron mentions in his talk, and some ideas on how to nurture them in kids:
I also asked some friends of mine to share their stories with me, and tell me what shaped them to become entrepreneurs. I’ll share some of those stories here as well.
When you own a business, solving problems is a daily activity. Customers have problems. Employees have problems. Computers have problems. You can’t bury your head in the sand, you need to evaluate your options and choose a path to go down, even if it ends up being the wrong direction.
Kids are generally more impulsive than adults because they haven’t yet experienced the consequences of making bad choices.
Discipline expert Amy Morin recommends teaching children problem solving skills by:
- Identifying the problem and talking about it
- Coming up with ideas for possible solutions
- Listing the possible benefits or consequences of each approach
- Being decisive and taking action
- Allowing them to experience any fallout or negative consequences of their decision (as long as they are safe)
“What helped me most is that I was always making my own money somehow, pretty much since I was 10. The message I received as a kid was: if you want something, you have to get busy and figure out how to do it for yourself. I never expected my parents to provide more than the basics, really. Learning self-reliance, trusting in your creativity, and developing courage is a great gift.”
– Fiona Kirkpatrick Parsons, Marketing professional
The desire to make money
Once kids are old enough, teaching them to want money isn’t hard thanks to advertising. Kids learn how awesome money is at a pretty young age.
But there’s a big difference between wanting money and wanting to make money.
Making money involves work. Kids appreciate money they’ve worked for more than money they were handed.
When grandma gives a kid $20 for her birthday the first thing she wants to do is spend it. When she had to shovel the neighbour's driveway or knock on doors selling chocolate bars, suddenly that hard earned cash becomes more valuable.
“I grew up in the US around entrepreneurs, my grandparents owned their own businesses. My parents never said 'you can't,' so I grew up believing I could do whatever I wanted. I remember working as a dishwasher at 15 years old making $3.35/hour, and then mowing lawns on the side at $20 per lawn, which would only take me 30 minutes. That's when the light bulb went off!”
– Kevin Springer, Serial entrepreneur and co-founder, Proposify
How to sell
I love how Cameron Herald teaches his kids business and how to sell.
Instead of assigning them chores and giving them a set amount of allowance (which is teaching kids how to be employees), he encourages them to find jobs they think need doing, come to him and offer to do them, then negotiate a price.
Selling to your dad is one thing, but selling to strangers is another.
That’s why door to door sales, like selling newspaper subscriptions or chocolate bars is a valuable training ground for child entrepreneurs. It’s teaching them how to speak to grownups, to get over the fear of rejection, and to use persuasion instead of nagging to get what they want.
“I sold candy in grade 6. I learned about working with a team, making a profit, and that you need your business needs to be defensible! The cafeteria ladies found out we were selling candy, and dipping into their profits, and had us shut down.”
– David Howe, Serial entrepreneur
Customer service goes hand in hand with sales. After all, once you’ve successfully convinced a prospect to do business with you, your job now becomes keeping that customer happy and fulfilling what you promised.
This is where jobs like cashier positions can teach customer service skills that can form entrepreneurial ideas for kids.
“I worked in a family run business from the time I was six until I moved out. I learned from pretty much day one that the money we used to buy food and to live on came from the drawer in the basement where we put it after we charged customers.”
– Findlay Hilchie, Co-founder of Hustle & Grind
I’ve written before about how glad I am that I didn’t give up on building Proposify in the early days, and my experience is far from unique.
Entrepreneurs are going to struggle at some point, maybe for a long time, and some of the most successful business people did not make it because they were necessarily smarter than everyone else, but because they kept pushing ahead despite setbacks.
It’s hard because as a parent you never want to see your child upset, struggling, or frustrated but it’s important to teach children that nothing worthwhile comes easy, and not to quit just because they failed or because something was difficult.
It’s better that kids learn to have grit at an early age instead of having everything handed to them, never needing to push through difficulties, and then discovering later as adults that the baby gloves are off.
“Going through two wars by adulthood, moving to Canada on my own at 19 with $1,500 in my pocket without really knowing anyone, and being homeless for the first week in Canada. All of it taught me to live day by day, and solve one problem at a time.”
– Milan Vrekic, Co-founder of Zora Inc.
Creativity is often most closely associated with art. But entrepreneurs are some of the most creative people out there. They are perhaps the only people who create their own job.
Entrepreneurs need to be observant and notice what people need (demand), find a solution (supply), sell that solution at a price people will pay, make a profit, deal with competition... the list goes on.
How can you teach creativity as a skill?
Children should be given plenty of time for unstructured play, where they can use their imagination.
Cameron Herald has some nights where rather than reading his kids a story, he asks them to make up their own.
Some people think technology hampers creativity, but used correctly it can unleash it. Just look at games like Minecraft that encourage players to build whatever they want in a completely open, nearly infinite world. Smart phones and tablets let kids easily record their own videos.
Modern technology can be used along with more traditional activities, like learning an instrument or painting, to teach kids it’s OK to let your imagination run wild and pursue your ideas.
“In grade 12 I created a summer job with four other high school students. We applied for grants, mapped local recreation trails in our community, designed a booklet with environmental info, and paid ourselves. We learned a lot that summer!”
– Michelle Doucette, photographer
There’s more to being the boss than just bossing people around. You need to be a leader; inspiring, teaching, and motivating your employees to be the best they can be.
There are ways to teach kids to be successful entrepreneurs and leaders, not by encouraging them to be a bossypants (technical term), but by setting the example for them and being a good leader yourself.
You can encourage them to participate in team activities and observe how they interact with other kids. Don’t jump in if they have trouble or if another kid is being unfair. Let them work it out themselves.
“Being a swim coach and camp counselor taught me how to manage people and position them for success.”
– Iaian Archibald, Co-founder of Swell Advantage
One of the most valuable things for me as an entrepreneur has been the network of friends, colleagues, and influencers I’ve acquired over the years.
Businesses are not created in a vacuum. Much like a child, it takes a village to raise a startup.
Having a wide group of people you know, locally and internationally, online and offline, provides a wide range of people to reach out to for advice, to pitch new ideas, to hire for positions, to make introductions.
Children can be encouraged from an early age to be interested in people. It starts with having them sit in on conversations between their parents and other adults, listen, and ask questions.
If you’re part of a community group or church, encourage your son or daughter to be sociable by approaching and talking to older people in addition to kids their own age.
They may be naturally shy, but with practice even the most timid of children can come out of their shell and learn the value of making new connections.
“When I was a little girl, my mom had a eclectic group of friends who were entrepreneurial, and being around them made me want to do my own thing. I think as an entrepreneur you have a huge influence on the kids in your life, probably more than you would think.”
– Krista Keough, Consultant, college entrepreneurship instructor
It may sound like a cliché but kids are our future, and if you’re an entrepreneur who either has children or influences someone else’s child, it’s important to think about how we can shape them into future leaders, job creators, and successful entrepreneurs.
In other words, please think of the children!
In no way do I think I have all the answers. These are ideas to get the discussion started.
I want to ask you: What experience when you were a child/teenager shaped you to become an entrepreneur later on in life, and what are some ways we can teach kids to be more entrepreneurial?