Entrepreneurship for Youngsters

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2519, 2007-05-11, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 18 and 20) and their website.

A well-known cartoon by Peter Steiner shows two dogs in front of a PC. The canine keyboarder tells his companion, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."

Likewise, nobody would know if you were a teenager, running a profitable business. This is fortunate, since age can be an impediment for youngsters attempting to be taken seriously in the business world. The Internet is truly the most powerful anonymizing technology yet developed, allowing you to disguise your gender, race, physical appearance, and even, apparently, your species.

In fact, computers in general have been a boon to young entrepreneurs, even for those not providing products or services directly over the Internet. An increasing number of children and young adults are developing their own enterprises, and making money, in such diverse fields as basketball camps, graffiti art, handcrafted wood pens, housecleaning services, and everyone's favorite category — food, such as braces-friendly granola.

Most of these young entrepreneurs received considerable assistance and encouragement from parents, teachers, organizations, and the Web, which makes available countless resources.

From Small Acorns

The US government's Small Business Administration offers a site, Teen Business Link, with information on business ideas, planning, finance, law, and more. The first section has checklists for sources of business ideas, criteria for evaluating them based upon one's interests, the upsides and downsides of trying to run a business at a young age, and other preparatory considerations.

A business plan can be of tremendous value before, during, and after forming any business. Prior to paying for a business license or equipment, the development of a business plan can confirm a genuine interest in the business, and a willingness to work towards it. During the formation of the business, its plan can serve as a checklist for essential steps. When the business is running, that same plan — especially if it has been kept up-to-date — could prove invaluable when communicating with potential partners or venture capitalists.

The Teen Business Link's page on business plans explains the minimum information needed, such as marketing and operations. Their sample business plan is a substantial illustration of the general principles. For a hypothetical company, "Erin's Sitters", it describes in detail the business's services, advertising promotions, competition, personnel, startup budget, balance sheet, income statement, and operating budget. Any child who has the discipline to write out all of those details, certainly has what it takes to become a businessperson, or an accountant.

Resources For the Resourceful

There are many other useful websites worth exploring. Junior Achievement helps children in grades K-12 learn about business and basic economics. The organization may be based in Colorado, but it has offices worldwide, and more than 200 in the United States. Parents of budding entrepreneurs can utilize the website to find out what programs are offered in their area, and possibly assist as a volunteer.

With so many youngsters nowadays playing video and computer games, Junior Achievement teamed up with Best Buy to create JA Titan, an online simulator for high schoolers to test their skills in running their own business. A school-based version is also available, featuring lesson plans and administrative capabilities for teachers.

The John Cook School of Business at the St. Louis University offers an Entrepreneurship Education Resources page, with links to several other promising sites. These include YoungBiz, which has dozens of articles offering advice on how to start and run a business, and even more examples of young entrepreneurs who have done so successfully.

Pitiless Pitfalls

Most new businesses are created by enthusiastic and intelligent adults who may have years of experience in the commercial world, thousands of dollars for seed capital, academic training in business management, and countless hours honing their business plans while laboring in cubicles of large corporations, to which they do not want to return. Those adults are extremely motivated to make their fledgling businesses succeed. Nonetheless, most of those will fail, usually within the first few years.

If the odds are so daunting for these adults, they are certainly no better for youngsters lacking everything that their older competitors possess — aside from enthusiasm and possibly an outstanding idea. Youngsters, and their parents, should be realistic when considering the chances of success, and the many roadblocks that they will likely encounter when taking a business from fantasy to reality.

The initial excitement and the energy of youth may tempt family members and others to make financial and emotional commitments, which can be lost if the prospective businessperson fails to follow through. This is one of the major benefits of making a viable business plan a requisite step: The hurdle of writing such a plan can quickly weed out the dreamers from the doers.

Lemonade Stand from Lemons

Yet the young businessperson also possesses advantages that can be well leveraged. An adult entrepreneur may have greater motivation to succeed, but it can be the result of financial pressures, such as being the sole or major breadwinner for their family, or investing their life savings in a franchise, or taking out a second mortgage on their house just to raise the necessary capital. A younger competitor can let their parents worry about such mundane matters. This can allow him or her to be more patient in developing the business, and more flexible in making major changes, if necessary.

Young entrepreneurs are typically more in tune with the fast-changing interests of their peers, who are increasingly forming the target markets of America's service-based economy, such as music and other forms of entertainment.

Enterprises composed of people few in number and in years, can be more nimble, and easily underestimated by their more traditional competitors — particularly in any commercial field that the adults mistakenly consider to be "off limits" to the younger set.

The energy of youth can be a real asset in the fast-paced world of modern business, in which one of the oldest aphorisms is still true: "Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration."

This quotation is attributed to Thomas Edison, who as a child sold newspapers and candy on trains. Despite partial deafness and a lack of formal schooling, he developed himself into a phenomenal inventor, and is a role model for budding young entrepreneurs everywhere.

Copyright © 2007 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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