The Wonder Years

Testing Their Wings

If you're not ready to let your kids join your company, or think they'll get more out of starting their own venture, help them kick off a business. Kids make great entrepreneurs because they have a lot of time and energy, and they don't have to worry about paying the mortgage. Plus, kids naturally think outside the box because they haven't yet been inside the box.

The first step is to listen and find out what they're interested in. Do they love to bake? Take care of pets? Run errands? Fix things? Next, help them figure out who their potential customers are, how to reach them, and what the message or selling proposition is going to be. Brainstorm with them on who the competition is, their pricing, and how they can offer something with superior quality, price or service.

Once your child has decided on the type of business, who they are selling to and who they are competing with, plan out the resources they'll need to make, buy or borrow. It's also a good idea to create a little cash-flow model showing the inflow and outflow of money to see if the business is going to stay solvent.

Children's early businesses are not just moneymakers, they're adventures-a chance to have fun and learn. Businesses teach with real-life examples. And for the more laconic kids in the family (i.e., teenagers), a business venture can give parents and teens something to talk about.

Once kids have embarked on their new venture, parents play a critical role behind the scenes, according to Bonnie Drew, executive vice president of YoungBiz Inc., an Atlanta company that offers camps and classes in support of the nascent entrepreneur, and jointly produces TeenStartUps.com with Entrepreneur. "It's critical to support your child when they ask for advice like 'How do I soothe an unhappy customer?' or 'Do you think I should expand?' Sometimes they won't ask but may need real help staying focused or motivated when they run into an obstacle," says Drew.

However, she cautions, don't get too involved. There's a natural parental temptation to save your kids from any heartache, but you shouldn't try to prevent or fix every mistake. "Some of the best lessons come from failure," Drew says. "Why did you lose that customer? Why did you run out of money? Don't let those errors discourage your child. Talk about them. Learn from them. Overcome them. That's the best lesson a parent can teach."

Bright Ideas
Start-ups for small fry:
  • Brokering baby-sitting services (matching up sitters and families)
  • Buying goods at yard sales, cleaning/fixing them and reselling them
  • Washing cars
  • Tutoring in academic subjects or computers
  • Creating custom-made calendars of families, friends or pets using a digital camera
  • Designing and selling T-shirts or hats
  • Gardening: services such as lawn mowing, weeding and planting
  • Making and selling gift baskets
  • Making and selling personalized notecards
  • Personalizing children's gifts, such as books, puzzles and clothing
  • Offering pet care, dog walking, pet-sitting
  • Running a craft-making class
  • Running errands or doing chores for elderly neighbors
  • Selling treats or drinks at Little League, soccer or high school football games
  • Shoveling snow

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This article was originally published in the March 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The Wonder Years.

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