Start a Business Working With Kids

Want to be a happy camper? Starting a summer camp might be just what you need.
Magazine Contributor
5 min read

This story appears in the August 2002 issue of Teen Startups. Subscribe »

( - Remember summer camp? The campfires, the sing-a-longs, the middle-of-the-night pranks and bugs galore? Guess what? There's another side to summer camp.

Summer camps, according to the teens who run them, can also mean low overhead and big profits. So if you don't like the thought of working at the mall or mowing lawns to raise a little extra money, take some tips from these instructors, and you might just find yourself the owner of a profitable year-round service business.

No Hard Work?
Sean O'Connell, 21, co-owner of The O'Connell Basketball Camp in River Forest, Illinois, admits it was "an aversion to physical labor, especially lawn mowing," that sparked the idea for the camp that he and his brothers, Brendan, 20, and Paddy, 18, started more than five years ago.

Since then, the camp has grown from one two-week session in the O'Connells' backyard with about 20 neighborhood kids in attendance to two sessions held at a local community center with more than 50 students each. The kids meet for two hours each day and learn basketball basics such as dribbling, passing, shooting and rebounding.

Low start-up costs were another reason the brothers adopted the idea. "We already had a hoop and several basketballs," Brendan explains.

Advertising costs for the camp have always been low because of the connections the three brothers made in previous years as baby-sitters. Distributing fliers was all it took to get kids to attend the first year, and, since then, they've come up with creative publicity ideas like donating a camp enrollment to a local elementary school's fundraising auction. "Virtually all the rest of our advertising is by word-of-mouth," Brendan says.

The only other costs the camp incurs are T-shirts for each participant, daily snacks and first aid supplies. The O'Connells charge $65 for one two-week session and $100 for two. After figuring in their expenses, they've made $2,500 in profit during each of the past two summers.

Drumming Up Business
Asha Santee, the 15-year-old owner of Drum Lessons by Asha in Houston, may not teach group lessons or hold drum camps during the summer, but she started and runs her business in much the same way as the O'Connells. A talented percussionist who takes after her father (also a drum teacher), Santee decided her talent could help her make money with no start-up costs and almost no operating expenses, with the exception of maintaining her drums.

"When people call about lessons, I try to find out what they want to learn and how much time they want to spend," explains Santee, who teaches drumming styles from jazz to gospel. "I expect them to commit to an eight-week session."

Santee charges $100 per eight-week session, and, unlike the O'Connells, has found that demand for her services increases in the fall, when students want extra help competing for the top "chairs," or spots, in their band's percussion section.

So if the idea of running a summer or year-round camp or other kid-oriented business intrigues you, take some tips from the pros:

  • Find your niche. While both the O'Connell brothers and Santee cite low start-up costs as one of the reasons they started their businesses, both found they had talents they could offer. Don't nix your idea because you have no formal training, they say. While Santee has had many years of instruction, the O'Connells never played organized basketball after grade school. They did, however, enjoy playing "pick-up" games and soon realized they had the skills necessary to teach others.
  • Assess your people skills. While talent is important, how well you deal with others will largely determine whether your business will succeed. Santee is good at one-on-one instructing, while the O'Connells thrive on dealing with lots of kids at one time. Sean O'Connell says the biggest challenge is keeping all his campers happy. "There's always one troublemaker who I try to make friends with right away," he explains. "Once they realize they're there to have fun, it gets easier."
  • Divide and conquer. Asha can handle running her business by herself, but the O'Connells must divide their responsibilities. Sean, for example, works with the kids, while Brendan handles the record-keeping and Paddy organizes things like snack time, the first aid station and bathroom breaks. Making sure you have enough staff is key, they say.
  • Do your research. Talk to your target audience and their parents to find out if there's interest in your business idea and how much they would pay for the service. Santee set her price after checking out her competitors' rates. "Once you have your basic equipment, almost everything is profit," she explains. "You just have to figure out what your time and knowledge are worth."
  • Don't take the responsibility lightly. Being in charge of others, especially children, is a big responsibility, so make sure your camp or lessons are taught in a safe place and that you have enough help, first aid and snacks. And, according to Sean O'Connell, there's an added benefit to keeping parents in the loop: "It's always important to be personable with parents because they tell their friends about us," he says. In other words, the more trustworthy you prove yourself to be, the more business you'll get.
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