Youth entrepreneurs as young as 10 are starting companies that stand to shape Utah’s future. But to make their dreams a reality, they need opportunities to solve problems, access to resources to expand, and adult mentors who take them a little more seriously.
Aspiring engineer Spencer Harrison was just 13 years old and sitting around the campfire with his brother and cousins when he conceived of an idea for an improved campfire roasting stick. “We were scouters, and every single campout we ate marshmallows and nothing else,” he said. “I wanted variety.”
His father, a former small business owner himself, encouraged Harrison to try selling the campfire sticks instead of getting a summer job. Harrison was skeptical at first, but started knocking on doors and traveling to local fairs to make his sales pitch. Five years later, Harrison’s Wolf ‘Em Sticks are available in 250 stores and bringing in about a quarter million dollars in sales annually.
“The more you’re into it, the longer you go, the more you realize that this is possible,” said Harrison, now 18 and headed to his first year of college. “Sometimes you don’t need that fast food job. You can work on your future right now.”
Youth have long exhibited entrepreneurial instincts, scrapping together spending money with just about any marketable skill or product they can come by — mowing lawns, babysitting, even, iconically, selling lemonade. Harrison and his peers have aimed a little higher, riding a recent wave of interest in young entrepreneurs to launch business ventures that have them hiring employees before they graduate high school.
While programs intended to help teens write and pitch business plans have inspired hundreds of youth, only a handful of their participants turn their early business ventures into careers. What young entrepreneurs really need to stay in business, the successful teens say, is more real-world experience. They need to be allowed to struggle and fail, they need access to real-life resources, and they need mentors who view them as legitimate business leaders despite their inexperience.
Attuned to the future
Rex Falkenrath founded his first tire distribution company at age 11, after watching a truck deliver tires to the gas station at the end of his street. He retired in 2008 after managing his auto parts distribution company, Number 1 International, for over 35 years. Midway through his career, he branched out and started Techniphase Industries, which developed and manufactured more fuel-efficient parts for internal engines. But it all started, he said, with a kid who would measure his neighbors’ tire tread and ask stay-at-home housewives if they would like him to deliver new, safer tires before someone in the family had an accident.
“I was a really strong personality as a kid,” Mr. Falkenrath said. “My moto was, ‘patience—forget that.’ I just wanted to make something happen.”
It’s hard to get data on how many kids who start tire delivery services go on to run international distribution companies. The statistics that do exist suggest around a quarter of college graduates who earn degrees in entrepreneurship go on to start their own company, said Anne Bastien, who oversees the High School Utah Entrepreneur Challenge at the University of Utah’s Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute.
But high schoolers? While some programs that encourage youth entrepreneurship, such as Junior Achievement, have been around for decades, most are relatively new. The Lassonde program, for example, started just three years ago; the first students to acquire seed money through the high school challenge have yet to graduate from college.
Whatever the statistics have to say about the past, Ms. Bastien said, one thing is already clear to her about today’s teens: on the whole, they’re far more entrepreneurial than previous generations.
“They’re attuned to how the world is changing and want to be in control of their own destiny,” she said.
To Troy D’Ambrosio, executive director of the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, this is more reflective of the current economic reality than anything else. He pointed to an analysis out of Princeton and Harvard universities that found that “alternative work arrangements” — temp workers, on-call workers, independent contractors and freelancers — now represent 16 percent of all jobs available in America. That number is expected to grow, and what is known as the “gig economy” may soon represent just under half of the American workforce, Mr. D’Ambrosio said.
Teens, he said, are seeing the writing on the wall, and are largely better prepared to create their own jobs than adults.
“These kids grow up with phones and computers,” he said. “When they want to do something, they learn how to do it themselves. Higher education hasn’t quite caught up yet.”
The wave of new entrepreneurial programs for high schools is reflective of that attempt to catch up. And it plays an important role in the development of young entrepreneurs, who Falkenrath said have good ideas, but often lack the experience needed to turn those ideas into successful business ventures.
Take the lemonade stand, for example. It’s a good idea, Falkenrath said, but most kids will start right off the bat buying water, sugar, and other supplies at the grocery store, and struggle to turn any kind of profit. What they should do, he said, is leverage the resources they already have before buying new ones. They should recruit their friends and launch a lemonade stand franchise that promises to donate 10 percent of its revenue to charity to inspire additional sales.
“Then you expand that to lemonade stands to all over Salt Lake County, then every other county in the state, and just keep marching forward,” he said.
If you can give teens this broader view of their own potential, it empowers them to take charge of their own destiny, said Katie Smith, one of the founders of Mind Riot, the three-day entrepreneurial boot camp for teens at the Leonardo museum.
“The more we have individuals who … realize they can affect change in their own lives, and that those changes will affect the world,” she said, “that will create a stronger community and society for all.”
Learning to fail
Olivia George, teen founder of Mountain Blue Doodles in Monticello, is no stranger to the concept of leveraging her resources for personal gain. Though, mostly she started out trying to use her leverage to get a dog.
Her dad wouldn’t let her have a dog, Ms. George said, so she and her friends started a dog walking business. Before long, she had four or five other neighborhood girls working for her. By walking more than one dog at a time, she said, she could make $10 an hour, which seemed like pretty good money to a ten-year-old.
Then her dad told her she could get a dog of her own, if she could find a way to make money with it. So she started breeding high-dollar, hypoallergenic Bernedoodle puppies. Today she makes six figures and has three employees working under her.
Being allowed to struggle and experience failure was an important component of her success, Ms. George said. At times in her life, she said, her parents — who work in construction — were out of work, leaving the family with very little money. And she once quit her business after being teased by her peers.
“For me, being miserable for a while, having things suck and being depressed — I needed that,” she said. “I needed people to not pay for things and not say it was OK. I needed people to, I don’t know, not help me.”
A critical moment in his education, Mr. Harrison agreed, was when a math teacher put a new concept on the whiteboard, told them to figure it out, and walked away.
“It might be uncomfortable at first,” Mr. Harrison said. “But having that experience of sitting there and having no idea what’s going on, it really puts you in the mindset of an entrepreneur.”
There is an opportunity to challenge yourself — and potentially fail — all the time, George said. But teens are often taught to avoid discomfort and failure, which prevents them from learning to rely on themselves.
Ms. Smith agreed. Being allowed to fail, she said, is critical to overcoming the fear of failure that often prevents entrepreneurs of all ages from pursuing their dreams.
“So many people are afraid to take a next step,” she said, “because they’re afraid that if they fail, it’s over and done.”
Funding something real
Another component critical to success for teen entrepreneurs, Smith said, is helping them to access resources, be they further educational opportunities, internships, or even funding.
Having the opportunity to pitch his business idea to real investors, programmer Sam Hirsch said, inspired him to pursue founding a real company.
Hirsch said he came up with the idea for his smart phone app, CleanFare, while participating in Mind Riot as a high schooler. He later competed for seed money in the High School Utah Entrepreneur Challenge, which convinced him that his idea had real potential.
“A lot of high school extracurricular activities still have that curricular feel,” he said. “It still feels like you’re not in the real world yet. This was a real opportunity for me that really made me take a look at what I was doing and realize that it was something real, that I was competing on a large scale with real companies.”
Now a sophomore at the University of Utah, Mr. Hirsch said he is in the process of hiring his first employees.
Giving teens access to real financial resources is more than symbolic in its importance. One of the things that has prevented Campfire Industries from expanding, Mr.Harrison said, is his inability to get financing due to his age.
“Right now, we are a one-product business,” he said. “With funding, I could see where to push the branding…. If we made a second product, we could double our sales, but we don’t have the financing to develop a second product. We don’t have a warehouse.”
Mr. Hirsch has experienced similar difficulties. His app, which is currently available on the IOS and Google app stores, remains in beta mode because he has been unable to find business partners to help him complete the project. CleanFare allows users to track and log the miles they travel via public transit, on a bicycle or on foot. Those users are supposed to be rewarded with perks from partnered businesses, but that feature is presently unavailable.
Facilitating the passion
“Sales” Mr.Harrison agreed, “are literally the worst.”
“If I am going to a store, I can ask for the manager, and he’s out — when he’s literally right there,” he said. “Financing and retail, no one takes you very seriously.”
Teens cannot succeed in business, Mr.Harrison said, unless they have mentors who take them by the hand and, in some cases, help open doors — and credit accounts — for them.
Specifically, Mr. Falkenrath said, teens need mentors who treat them like adult entrepreneurs. Teens need to be taught all the same concepts, like how to manage cash flow and conduct market research, if their businesses are going to make it.
Mr.Falkenrath, who mentored diverse business owners through his position as an entrepreneur in residence at Westminster College, said he’s seen no difference in the abilities of teen entrepreneurs versus adults.
“I had all comers,” he said. “Kids come in at 17 years old, up to 70 years. I don’t think that the 17 or 70 year old was more or less likely to understand cash flow. Both had the same ability to do it.”
Mentors are also critical to providing teens with examples that prove entrepreneurial success is possible.
Tobi Yoon, the 19-year-old founder of ColoClean, came up with a viable idea for an alternative prep kit that would allow patients to skip the lengthy fast associated with colonoscopies in high school. But she never saw herself as an entrepreneur until she won the High School Utah Entrepreneur Challenge and connected with mentors at the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute.
“I had this idea of CEOs in my mind as being old, rich people who had done this all their lives,” she said.”I never made the connection that it’s totally possible to start when you’re 16. But the earlier you start, the more experience you have and the more likely you will blossom.”
Teens may actually have some advantages over adults, Yoon continued, while watching a group of children set up a lemonade stand in a church parking lot. They’re starting that lemonade stand, she said, because no one has told them yet that it probably won’t make them rich. They still have their youthful passion.
Without mentors who encouraged her and took her seriously, Ms.Yoon said, she couldn’t have founded her company.
“Passion can only go so far before it’s squashed by other people who shut the door in your face,” she said. “It isn’t just about passion. A big portion of it is treating these teenagers like real business people. Which is what we are. It’s absolutely what we are.”