When I was young, I was a budding entrepreneur. In the late 1980s, one could easy get forty cents a pound for aluminum, so I adamantly collected cans. I provided garbage cans for neighbors to toss their empty cans in, then I would go on a route and collect those cans, adding them to my own collection. Eventually, this became a pretty profitable enterprise for a ten year old boy living in a very rural area – I could make $30 or $40 a week working a few hours a day around whatever else was going on.
Unfortunately, several events killed my entrepreneurial spirit – chief among them, a painful experience where my collected aluminum for most of a summer was stolen by someone I trusted. The wind left my entrepreneurial sails – and it didn’t really come back until the last few years.
That’s a true shame, in my opinion, because I missed out on the best years to be an entrepreneur – late childhood until you settle down with a family. You have the time and the freedom to really let your sails unfurl and let that entrepreneurial wind push you towards your dreams.
Now that I’m a father, I’m looking at my children starting to grow up and I realize that it won’t be long before they reach the age where they will want to earn their own money. Here are seven techniques, learned from observing the parents and mentors of young entrepreneurs, that I intend to use to encourage my own children to make their own success. These techniques will work for anyone you might want to mentor, from
Let them see the possibilities from a very young age. Even now, I’m pointing out to my two year old son that people work to earn money. “Dad and Mom go to work every day so they can make money. We use that money to buy food, to buy our house, and our clothes. Usually, the harder and smarter we work, the more money we make for our time.” I try to constantly show him better ways of doing stuff – like it’s easier to stack the plates when taking them out of the dishwasher then putting the stack away than to put the plates away one at a time. That’s more efficient, and that’s the key to success.
Let their options for earning money be a choice with differing levels of success. I’ve fostered that a bit by having him help with household cleanup – he has some required things to do, like cleaning up his Legos, but he can sometimes earn a quarter by unloading the plates and saucers in the dishwasher, for example. He’s learning that he has an entrepreneurial choice – he can either go play and not stack the plates, or he can stack them and earn a quarter. Most of the time, he wants the quarter – he’s learned that quarters can be taken to the store to buy a new car. Tying the two pieces together, he’s learned that stacking the plates first gets the job done faster (while still doing it just as well as before).
Always provide positive encouragement. The worst thing you can tell someone is that they can’t do it. Instead, point out that they can do it, but before they get there, they’re going to need to add some skills. This is something that my parents and mentors both did quite well – my parents were always adamant that I could live my dreams once I got an education, and lately my mentors have shown me that effort and diligence can carry you quite far. I know that I can’t follow every dream, but I know that with the right tools, I can follow most of them – and it’s because of encouragement that I believe it.
Help them brainstorm. Entrepreneurship feeds on ideas, usually starting with a core idea that gets developed into a profitable enterprise. This requires creativity and critical thinking, and most of the time, both processes can be helped along with a guiding hand. Listen to their ideas and offer your own. Be willing to be a sounding board for what they’re thinking, and offer positive suggestions. For example, let’s say your nephew wants to start a lawn care business. He needs to think about equipment, about marketing, about policies and prices, and about time to execute these things. Suggest these, watch the wheels turn, and offer some help when it’s needed.
Strongly encourage them to plan ahead. The more planning one does in terms of the future, the more likely long term success will occur. Encourage them to write an actual business plan, and be willing to be an editor of that plan. Encourage thought about where this might potentially go, and whether or not it makes sense to make different basic choices to get there. Should you buy a sturdier lawnmower now, or get a cheap one to get started and upgrade later?
Invest in their work. Many beginning entrepreneurs are stymied by a lack of capital. They can’t afford equipment, business cards, or needed services. Offer to be an “angel investor” for their small enterprise, giving them an interest-free loan to get started. That way, you’re letting them get started while the fire is still burning hot and not putting them in a financial trap, either. I’ve invested in the budding entrepreneurship of multiple people in the last few years, including a person who’s starting a beverage company.
Let them fail, but help them get back up. Failure is going to happen. Vital equipment will fail, a key customer will quit, or all of your work product will get stolen – I’ve seen all of these happen. Let the person feel failure for a bit, but then help them get back up off the ground. This is something that I wish had happened to me when I was younger – I was reeling from the punch, but no one encouraged me to get back out there and keep fighting. Instead, I began to believe that entrepreneurship wasn’t for me – the biggest mistake of all.
The most important thing? Don’t be afraid to be a mentor. If you know someone who’s starting a business, offer to help them in some way, even just in the form of someone to bounce ideas off of. You’ll get nothing but benefit from this in the long run, in the form of a local businessperson who values you and a stronger sense of community and of your own sense of entrepreneurship.