From the December 2002 issue of Startups

Spencer Horsman's business partner is a dummy. That's OK, though, because Horsman could hardly call himself a ventriloquist without Dexter, his right-hand man. Horsman, 16, who has been performing with Dexter since he was 8 years old, is so adept at making Dexter seem alive that the duo has been featured on Late Night with David Letterman, the only ventriloquist act to ever appear on the show.

Like Magic
The idea for Horsman's business appeared like magic when he received a hand puppet for his 8th birthday. But magic had little to do with the hours of practice it took for him to learn the art of ventriloquism. After a little help from videos by professional "vents," along with strategically placed business cards in his father's magic shop, Horsman began getting jobs around the Baltimore, Maryland, area where he lives.

Spencer attributes his success to business skills like professionalism, management and networking, but his vent skills aren't too shabby either. Shortly after honing his craft, Horsman placed second in the International Ventriloquist Contest held in Kentucky. The judges, professional vents themselves, were obviously impressed with the 8-year-old's puppet-handling skills and the quality of his jokes. Incorporating a few magic tricks didn't hurt either.

Tapping Their Talents
Like Horsman, teen 'treps across the country are discovering that talent equals money and, sometimes, fame. Marlena Cooper, for instance, is certainly a celebrity in her hometown of Jefferson, Texas. The 20-year-old began singing when she was 7 and made her professional debut at 13. Cooper performs almost constantly, in anything from weddings to jazz festivals and other special events, and has been offered recording contracts. While Cooper sees a recording career in her future, she turned the offers down, for now, to concentrate on her education.

Next Step
Read Spencer and Dexter's story in its entirety at YoungBiz.com.

The Dazzling DiMuzio Brothers, on the other hand, have juggled their way to fame in Charlotte, North Carolina. David DiMuzio, 17, started out as a solo act after learning the skill from family members in 1996. "I started out as a juggling clown," he recalls, "but putting on and taking off the makeup took too much time."

The Dazzling DiMuzio Brothers act was born when David was hired by a church but realized he didn't have enough material to fill the 30 minutes that his client requested. Paul, now 15, who had learned to juggle from his brother, stepped in to help and never stepped back out.

During their act, the brothers juggle everything from rings to garden tools while telling jokes. And the grand finale finds Paul standing on David's shoulders and juggling flaming torches while David juggles machetes and rides a unicycle.

Tips From the Pros
Performers are good at making what they do seem easy, but it's not all magic. If performing is your thing, here are some tips that Horsman, Cooper and the DiMuzios say will help you glide effortlessly into a theatrical business of your own.

  • Develop your talents. Performers like the ones mentioned here often discover their talents completely by accident and hit upon a business idea after finding something they're naturally good at. What are you good at? Make a list and then figure out ways to improve upon your natural abilities. Horsman and the DiMuzios both used videos by professionals in their fields. Similarly, David DiMuzio joined a jugglers' club, while Horsman uses the Internet to share experiences and tips with other vents.
  • Practice, practice, practice. While Cooper makes money singing at professional events, she also sings for fun with a local group called the Junior Historians. "We're just a bunch of kids who get together every Sunday to practice and put on shows during every major holiday," she says. Juggling, according to the DiMuzio brothers, requires constant practice and refinement. "When we're getting ready for a competition, we basically eat, sleep and juggle," David explains.
  • Focus on marketing. Even the most mundane marketing tool can be a goldmine in a performer's hand. Take Horsman's business cards, which he displays in his father's magic stores and hands out to anyone who will take one. The card, folded in the shape of a small suitcase, opens to reveal a picture of Dexter's head, complete with a moveable mouth. The DiMuzio brothers always have their juggling gear in tow, but they also use the more traditional fliers and pamphlets, which they hand out everywhere.
  • Take care of business. While start-up costs for performers who own their own businesses are often low, it is still essential to watch the bottom line. Cooper, who needed money for soundtracks, a sound system and a microphone, found this out firsthand. Fortunately, Cooper's uncle, an entrepreneur himself, helped her not only by loaning her money, but also by teaching her financial responsibility in the form of a loan agreement. Says Cooper, "He laid out a plan telling me how much he planned to let me borrow and when he wanted it back."