When Ashley and Caitlyn Haynes were just nine and seven years old, they started a bunny business. The Campbellville, Ont., sisters owned a male rabbit and a female rabbit. In no time—surprise!—they owned quite a lot of rabbits. Spotting an opportunity, the girls sold the bunnies to classmates and friends in search of fluffy pets. Enjoying a little income and recognizing the potential for more, the sisters chose a company name, Bunnyville, brainstormed marketing ideas and figured out how to increase their bunny stock. A company was born.
Bunny breeding may not become a billion-dollar empire and the girls, now 17 and 15, likely won’t be selling bunnies into the next decade. (In fact, Caitlyn recently sold her share of the business to Ashley so she could focus on being a high school student.) But this pair of very young entrepreneurs learned to be self-reliant, manage money, come up with creative solutions and solve problems on the fly. Not bad for what started as a pet overpopulation problem.
For many parents just a generation or two ago, the notion of an entrepreneurial future for their kids seemed like a risky proposition. But a 40-year career with just one company is becoming as mythical as our fathers’ tales of daily barefoot walks to school in the snow, uphill both ways.
In truth, starting your own business doesn’t have to be a major risk. Smart entrepreneurs do a lot of homework to make sure their dreams are grounded in a marketable reality. And a “kidpreneur” with a lawn mowing enterprise needs next to nothing in the way of start-up cash. “The notion of entrepreneurs being such high risk takers and therefore somehow suspect is actually not at all what I believe,” says entrepreneur Arlene Dickinson, CEO of Venture Communications and YouInc.com, venture capitalist on CBC’s Dragons’ Den and mom of four. “Entrepreneurs ultimately want control of their own destinies, which means in many ways they’re taking on less risk because they are placing their future success in their own hands.”
Kids are surprisingly savvy about all this, too. “When you get fired from a job, it’s not like they’re going to hire you back,” observes Abby, 16, a budding baker from North Vancouver. “With your own business, you’ll go through hard times but you can find your way out. You can depend on yourself instead of anyone else.”
Whether or not kids become entrepreneurs, the ability to be creative, innovative, tenacious and good with money can serve them well in life. “You don’t need to own your own business to act entrepreneurially,” says Dickinson.
What kids do need, though, is the motivation and curiosity to begin. For many, it may start with a desire to make a little extra money for a new bike, an Xbox game or some guitar lessons, or even to support a not-for-profit organization like Free the Children or Earthroots.
When kids express an interest in having a little extra money, help them think of creative ways to earn it, suggests Gail Haynes, author of The Lemonade Stand Millionaire (Morgan James), and mom of bunny business owners Ashley and Caitlyn. Chores are one way. “I started with my kids earning their ‘pay cheque’ based on age-appropriate chores around the house,” says Haynes, adding this included all their chores. “Each family has to decide what chores are part of family responsibilities, and which are chores they get paid for.” She suggests involving the kids in developing a list of chores and pay structure. “The more input a child has into the planning of the system, the more ownership and empowered they feel.”
Once you’re on a roll with the chore schedule, your kids may become interested in finding more ways to make money. This is when the idea of being an entrepreneur might first take hold, says Haynes. If they’re old enough to handle responsibility outside of the home, encourage them to think about what they like to do and what the neighbourhood needs. If your daughter loves dogs, for example, she might be capable of walking some neighbours’ pets several times a week. Offer guidance, but let them dream up the ideas on their own.
Related: 5 Ways to Make Chores Fun for Kids
Once your budding tycoon has settled on an idea, he’ll need to come up with a business name. You might also want to help him register a domain, ideally before the business starts, and set up a simple website. Not every business needs one, but it might come in handy for marketing—or even e-commerce—down the road.
Next, determine what supplies your child will need. A dog walking business might require some leashes and poop bags; a snow-shovelling business will need at least a good-quality shovel or two. At this point, Haynes recommends parents have a conversation with kids about start-up costs and point out that lower costs mean bigger profits sooner. If kids do need your help with these initial expenses, you might consider loaning the money and making it official by writing up a contract with a repayment plan everyone can live with.
Before your child can dive in to work, he’ll need to establish what to charge for his product or service. This will require a little market research to see what similar operations charge and then some thought about whether to charge more, less or about the same.
Once the business’s ducks are all in a row, it’s time to spread the word. Help your child determine who his potential customers are and dream up the best tactics to reach them. This might be done any number of ways, including posting flyers, speaking to kids or parents groups, knocking on neighbours’ doors, networking through social media sites or even posting a video on YouTube.
Clearly, there’s a lot more to being an entrepreneur than making money. But without some fundamental skills in managing cash, even the most brilliant business idea can be run into the ground.
Keith Publicover, president and CEO of Junior Achievement Canada, agrees. The non-profit organization runs several programs for kids, including the popular Company Program, designed to guide kids through developing and executing a business idea. While there’s plenty of focus on product development and other key concepts, the rubber really meets the road when kids have to buy materials or buy and resell a product. “If they don’t have a handle on the costs, they won’t achieve their sales goals,” says Publicover.
If your child’s business is making a few dollars, don’t stuff the money into her personal piggy bank to spend as she likes or stow it away in an account where she can’t see it. Instead, help her learn to divvy it up into separate funds—using whatever percentages make sense for the business—so she learns to balance spending and saving with reinvesting in the business.
For kids, Haynes recommends using a system of jars covering various categories such as “Play” (money to spend as they like), “Plan” (savings toward bigger purchases) and “Give” (for giving to charity). However many categories you come up with, the key is consistency. “Having the jars where kids can see them will inspire [them] to keep saving and spending in a positive way.”
For kids and parents more interested in supporting a worthy cause than padding a bank account, consider that profit and charity can go hand-in-hand. After all, if a business makes more money, there’s more to donate to a local food bank or a conservation agency, for example.
Building a business to support a cause can be seriously motivating for many kids. Kaileigh, 16, of Bridgewater, N.S., was the marketing lead for a group project with Junior Achievement that raised funds to support Kids Help Phone and bring attention to the issue of teen depression. Their company made hand-sewn fleece scarves in symbolic colours and wrapped them in paper labels printed with statistics about the issue.
The team’s passion behind their cause, evident in the product packaging, info-rich website and social media marketing tactics, likely helped them reach their market and drive sales, notes Kaileigh. “We sold a lot. It was a really big success.”
Abby, who had a knack for baking and a drive to make a little money, got her business started at age nine. “We were living in a 30-storey high-rise apartment in North Vancouver at the time,” she says. “I would bake cupcakes and cookies and go around the building to sell them.”
Your child’s business could happen quite organically and seem more like an evolution than a business enterprise. Publicover recalls a teen whose self-designed brightly patterned board shorts inspired so many compliments, he started making a few extras to sell to friends. The business slowly grew until he had to hire seamstresses to fulfill his backlog of orders from an international lineup of clients.
Pursuing a passion can be satisfying and can sometimes make good business sense, too. If your child has a strong interest in something—maybe they like to sew, design, master new languages or ride horses—encourage them to explore ways to use that budding expertise to help others. With some basic business skills, he might grow that passion into a business.
When your child has a business idea, let him run with it. Let him try. And let him fail. “It’s the toughest thing we can do as a parent, to see our kids struggling with something, know that we could solve it for them, but to stay back and let them sort it out,” says Haynes. Afterwards, sit down with your kids and ask them what they learned and how they would do things differently next time.
Failure is only failure if you repeat it. “You learn from mistakes, you learn to try again and maybe work through the problem in a different way,” notes Publicover. “This leads not just to business success but also to personal fulfillment.”
Dickinson agrees. “It’s probably the most important thing we can teach our kids. I do not know one highly successful entrepreneur who has not failed at something—and sometimes many things—along the way.”
Even in successful businesses there’s a chance to learn from smaller missteps. Abby joined a Junior Achievement team and helped create a profitable business selling personalized umbrellas to rain-weary Vancouverites. “A few of us in the program procrastinated and it made things really stressful,” admits Abby. “You learn from mistakes like that. I’ll take those lessons back with me next time so I can build a better business.”
Even when talking about business plans and money management, it’s important to let kids be kids. Let them enjoy the moment and keep the “business” discussions age appropriate, suggests Publicover. “If you push them beyond where they’re ready, they can turn off rather than turn on.” He adds, “It’s not about the end goal when you’re young; it’s about learning and self-development.”
For many kids, the act of creating a business out of nothing but an idea is the biggest reward. The fun is in the doing, especially if what they’re doing is something they’re passionate about. Making a profit is just a really cool byproduct. Publicover agrees. “At the end of the day, when a child can say, ‘I was able to do this,’ it’s a great reward.”
Abby, for one, is passionate about business. She’s energized by the hours she spends on her projects, whether she’s working on her own, with a friend or as part of a team. “I definitely want to be a business owner one day,” she says. “Coming up with ideas is the fun part.”
Melissa Campeau is a Toronto-based writer. She is also the proud mom of a four-year-old future lemonade stand tycoon.