Sweet Smell of Success
A couple years ago, when Nicolas Plume was 11 years old, his parents sent him off to summer camp near Yosemite. He loved it. But, when he returned home to Portola Valley, his parents informed him that if he wanted to go back the following year, he’d have to pay for it himself.
Nicolas got busy. He began handcrafting soap from big blocks of glycerin soap, adding fragrance and color, and pouring the finished product into molds – spiders, skulls and jack-o-lanterns for Halloween, gingerbread men and trees for Christmas – and selling the five-ounce bars for $4 apiece at holiday fairs, local cafes and door-to-door sales in his neighborhood.
Now all of 13 years old, Nicolas pays the bill for his own summer camp – a four-week session costing $5,000. He even buys his own Jamba Juice.
America is the land of child entrepreneurs, dating back to the days of Horatio Alger, that venerable 19th century author who celebrated the drive of impoverished young men who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. (Lesser well known fact: Alger published his first story at age 17.)
What’s changed is how many youths from well-heeled backgrounds – many of them the offspring of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs – are already taking the plunge. A poll (kauffman.org/youngentrepreneurs) last November found that 40 percent of youth between ages 8 and 24 were interested in starting their own business, and that those who personally already knew an entrepreneur were the most interested.
Taking It to Market
Seizing on this interest, Mike and Peggy Gibbs of Los Gatos recently introduced a hands-on summer program for kids, ages 11 to 15, who want to be the next Mark Zuckerberg.
Since its inception in 2008, Camp BizSmart has grown from a couple of locations in Silicon Valley (one at Stanford University, the other at Santa Clara University) to programs in Hawaii and India, with plans for expansion to China and Brazil by 2013.
“There is a huge demand for this internationally,” says Gibbs, a former efficiency expert with Cisco and GE. “It’s a real hands-on program for kids who want to understand how to make and take something to market.”
The two-week program recruits local start-ups to work with the kids on specific projects, from production to design, marketing and pitching to an actual group of Silicon Valley venture capitalists.
Every summer, one camper – from all the various locations – is named “The Next Steve Jobs.” Last summer, as the year before, that honor went to Aditya Reddy of Sunnyvale, who has just turned 14.
Aditya’s prize was an iPad (signed by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak) and lunch with an investor, whom Aditya immediately solicited for funding for his own pet project, Green Pioneers, a virtual company that mirrors the vision of Camp BizSmart.
“He was interested,” reports Aditya, who goes on to describe the idea.
“It’s a design for teenagers to get the same opportunity as I did – but online. The website guides you through the whole process. And at the end, you can present it to a (venture capitalist) who can possibly invest. It’s a pretty serious website.”
A Hand From the Folks
In some cases, it’s apparent that kids are clearly being encouraged and helped along by their parents. In San Rafael, for instance, 7-year-old Eric McCormick filed papers at the Marin County Clerk’s Office, identifying himself as CEO of Zeno Productions.
The company originated when Eric and his dad, Michael, a video game designer, co-wrote and self-published a couple of kids’ books. Over the past six years, it has morphed into a largely Facebook presence, which includes a game called Sushi Wars that did well enough for Eric to afford a Play Station 3 and invest the rest in a bank account.
“I think like a businessman,” maintains Eric, now 13. “For instance, I view things on two levels. One is the basic level, which is what it is. The other is, could this be something I could make or sell or create something out of?
“I think that is a good way to live. Instead of just viewing everything through an immediate point of view, you think of how things could be, how little things could be great ones.”
His dad, meanwhile, is writing a book called The Youngest CEO, a guide for raising an entrepreneur. “Figure out your strengths and interests and realize that kids can do great things, right now,” he urges. “You don’t have to sell yourself short because you’re just a kid.”
No one would accuse Sara Trail of selling herself short.
The 15-year-old Antioch girl is a high school junior, but her goal is to introduce a clothing apparel line like Vera Wang. She appears to be well on her way.
Described as a master seamstress and designer, Sara’s quilts sell for between $400 and $4,000. Her book and DVD, Sew With Sara, are on sale at bookstores around the country, and won a Best Parenting Award in 2010. She recently signed a contract with Fabri-Quilt Textiles Mill of Kansas City, Mo., to design several fabric collections that will be available in retail stores in the United States and Europe this October. Plus, she has another contract to design clothing, quilts, home goods and accessories for Simplicity Patterns.
Not bad for a 15-year-old.
“She’s bought herself an Apple computer and an iPod touch; she’s saving to go to college, and she buys herself clothes and shoes – like expensive tennis shoes, which I don’t buy,” says her mother, Kay.
Shrey Desai of Saratoga is another wunderkind who’s not letting any grass grow beneath his feet. This year, the seventh-grader was asked to become a technology representative to teachers at Redwood Middle School, after budget cuts led to staff layoffs. In that capacity, which Shrey describes as “a junior staff job,” he makes recommendations for the school’s technological direction.
The 12-year-old has already developed a couple of Android applications that have attracted some downloading interest, including one that was inspired after he kept losing his Internet connection while chatting away with friends.
“I thought, what if I could make an app where you don’t need an Internet connection, because sometimes it’s very unreliable,” he explains. “I started working on a new app, BlueTalk, that allows you to chat with your local friends over Bluetooth. That became my second most popular app, with over 1,000 downloads.”
After he started advertising and collaborating with a giveaway website, his technology blog, faze2life.blogspot.com, went through the roof with more than a million hits in February.
All that activity garnered so much attention that Shrey says he was offered a job by a well-known social media website that had no idea about his true age.
“I didn’t tell them I was 12 years old, but I ended up turning them down,” says Shrey. “If I started contributing to them, I would pay less attention to my website. I want to advance faze2life and beat them.” Spoken like a true entrepreneur!
Sara Solovitch is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.
10 Ways to Encourage Your Budding Capitalist
There’s more to early entrepreneurial success than helping your child set up a lemonade stand. Try these suggestions:
1. Listen to your kids. Find out what they’re interested in, and help them figure out how to make money from that interest – whether its sewing quilts or walking the dog. Brainstorm about potential customers, competition and how they can offer something with superior quality, price or service.
2. Bring your kids to work. That’s how Shrey Desai of Saratoga first got exposed to technology – picking up Java and HTML at his mother’s Cisco office, during spring break in fifth grade.
3. Supervise the set-up. Though you’ll ultimately allow your child to run the business on his own, it’s a good idea to make sure his choices are safe and legal. If needed, spot your kid some start-up capital, but make it clear that this is only a loan.
4. Answer questions. When your child has questions, be available to help and respond. If you don’t know the answers, show her how to do the research.
5. Let your child sink or swim on his own. It’s a natural temptation for parents to jump in and save their kids when the going gets tough. Resist the temptation. Some of the best lessons come from failure. When something bad happens, discuss it and help figure out how it happened: Why did you lose that customer? Why did you run out of money?
6. Let your child spend his own money. Of course, if he’s making a significant amount of money, you may want to oversee that a percentage goes into savings. Anything beyond that should be his to spend as he chooses.
7. Introduce your child to a real-life entrepreneur. Meeting people who are doing something similar in real life can be powerful motivation.
8. Give your kids a background in money. The schools don’t teach it. It’s up to us parents to instruct them how to spend and save wisely.
9. Give them a kick start. For a little motivation, there’s nothing like withdrawal. Stop increasing – maybe, even start decreasing – their allowance when they are old enough to start a business of their own. A variation on this theme is what inspired Nicolas Plume of Portola Valley to start his soap-making business.
10. Give your kids a few suggestions on how to make money. There are plenty of ways for those who are truly determined – from baby-sitting to washing cars, tutoring, weeding and dog walking.
The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Offers programs and partnerships to children ages 5 to18, through work with colleges, schools and youth organization. kauffman.org.
YoungBiz. Programs offering real-world experience to develop basic business skills. youngbiz.com.
Junior Achievement Inc. With chapters across the country, this organization provides tips and strategies for starting a business, as well as professional advisors who donate their time as consultants. The JA also has an entrepreneur center on its website. ja.org. Contact the Northern California Chapter at bayarea.ja.org or 925-465-1068.
You Call the Shots: Succeed Your Way – and Live the Life You Want – with the 19 Essential Secrets of Entrepreneurship, by Cameron Johnson (Free Press, 2007). The author started his first business when he was 9 with $50 and a home computer, and made his first million before graduating high school. In this book, he takes the reader behind the scenes and shows how to hit the ground running – no matter young you are, or how little money you have to invest.
The Lemonade Stand: A Guide to Encouraging the Entrepreneur in Your Child, by Emmanuel Modu (Gateway, 1996). This book teaches kids about money and ethics, motivation and developing business ideas and plans.
Beyond the Lemonade Stand, by Bill Rancic (Razorbill, 2006). Targeted for young entrepreneurs in grades 3 to 5, the book includes chapters about how to build your own business model and managing your money. The author is the first candidate who was hired by Donald Trump for The Apprentice.
Camp BizSmart bills itself as “the world’s premiere business and entrepreneur academy for Tweenpreneurs.” Each summer, it offers young people a hands-on approach to the business world, under the tutelage of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and CEOs. 800-475-0869. campbizsmart.org.