As long as you view business, and life itself, as a learning process, you cannot lose; whatever happens, you will learn from it and keep growing and enriching your life.

Equipped with a positive attitude, endless determination, and a recently earned high school diploma, I set out this past summer to start my own business. After nearly two decades of institutional learning, it was time to gain perspective on life by taking a test drive in the real world before heading off to college.

The business would be a mail-order personal security company, an area that has great significance to me. Three years ago this month, I was beaten unconscious and left for dead by a vicious gang on the streets of New York. I have tried to make as much good as possible come from this senseless incident. I cofounded a safety-oriented neighborhood block association with my mother in 1994, but I felt that there was more to be done. Whether or not my business was financially viable, I first and foremost wanted to impress upon people the importance of taking responsibility for one's own safety.

Starting the company was a challenge. I worked overtime the entire summer to earn enough money to get my business off the ground. With less than $2,000 in start-up capital I could ill afford the services of an accountant or a lawyer, yet I knew little about accounting and nothing about the intricacies of corporate law. What I did know was that quitting was not an option and being only 18 was not an excuse.

I started out at the public library. I spent my lunch hours and weekends reading book after book on every business-related topic from forming an S corporation to writing an effective business plan. I sacrificed a lot of sleep to my business, but it was well worth it. Whether the business succeeded or not, I was learning a lot about business and even more about myself.

Between a full-time job and an emergency medical technician course, finding time to start a business was perhaps the greatest challenge of all. The supplementary income from my job took off much of the pressure of making the business profitable. I needed the money, but the job was leaving me little time to devote to my business. Having a full-time job and a steady source of income was comforting, but it was keeping me from giving 100% of myself to my own business. With the quote "You can't steal second with your foot still on first" ringing in my head, I made the decision to resign and take the leap into self-employment.

That was three months ago.

Safety First - The Self-Defense Products Corp. is, by all accounts, a success. I have already broken even on my initial monetary investment, and the company continues to grow. I have two employees who work on commission, and I am currently concentrating on finding retail stores to carry Safety First's line of personal security products.

My greatest rewards, however, have been the nonmonetary ones. From day one, I have given 100% of my time and energy, often working 18-hour days, refusing to let this business be anything less than the success it now is. The feeling of taking an idea and working tirelessly until it becomes reality is incredible.

All that I have learned and continue to learn from operating a business is irreplaceable. I do not doubt the merits of learning about business in a classroom - in fact, this winter I will supplement my on-the-job learning with accounting and marketing courses at a local college before heading off to university next fall. I do feel, however, that the kind of hands-on business experience that I have had would get many more young people interested in business and teach them a lot about themselves along the way.

I plan to continue as president/CEO of Safety First. It is time-consuming but extremely rewarding work. In what little spare time I have found, I have begun work on two new projects. The first project is personal in nature: I have enrolled in flight school, investing a portion of my company's profits in fulfilling another dream. I will spend my spare time in the coming months learning to fly single-engine Cessnas and training for my private pilot's license. My second project is to start a nonprofit organization inspired by the work of my high school English teacher. He initiated a program to find old, unused computers for kids who cannot afford new ones. My idea is to form a company, tentatively called CompuCares, that would take this concept to a whole new level. CompuCares would set up computer donation programs targeted at larger corporations. Donated computers would be distributed to schools and individual students who currently cannot afford to compete in an increasingly computer-reliant society. The benefits for the donating companies include positive publicity and tax deductions. The benefits for the children are limitless.

The most important thing I have learned from these experiences is that if you can dream it, you can do it, regardless of how old you are.

Timothy S. Cohen
Safety First - The Self-Defense Products Corp.
34 Gramercy Park
New York, NY 10003