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Hey, that lemonade stand out front is great: shows you've got a kid with a real feel for --Norman Rockwell, maybe? But even as tykes, the bunch who went on to found the country's fastest-growing private businesses devoted themselves to uncovering niches that nobody else deemed worthy of exploring. That's how they describe it now, anyway; there's a thin line between an entrepreneurial genius and a garden-variety troublemaker. To help you figure out which one is tracking mud through your house right now, here are some signs that the kid under that backward-turned baseball cap is actually a forward-thinking capitalist:
1. Your son's new best friend has sparks flying out of him. It would have been natural for Tod Loofbourrow's parents to worry about whether their 12-year-old was hanging out with the wrong bunch. As it turned out, his good pal Mike smoked--but only, presumably, as the result of a malfunction. Loofbourrow, who would later launch Foundation Technologies (#340), built the six-foot, 70-pound hexagonal playmate in his folks' basement. Mike--short for "Microtron," the robot's full name--ran on a car battery and understood 10 oral commands. It also occasionally acted on its own impulses: at one computer conference, the creature began racing manically into the audience. At a later such get-together, Loofbourrow himself was stormed by an eager editor from Hayden Books, who signed him to pen How to Build a Computer-Controlled Robot. "I wrote it on yellow pads, and my mom typed it," he recalls. Royalties from the book, which sold 20,000 copies, enabled him to start the business.
2. In a crowded restaurant, your child leans toward a neighboring table and asks, "You finished with that?" These days, what Mark A. Fischer did would be slapped with a fancy label: victual reality. Back when he was a bootstrapping busboy, though, the 15-year-old was just trying to make better use of the resources around him, which happened to be table scraps. Instead of dumping them, he began wrapping the leftovers in plastic bags and selling them to patrons. "I'd have them on the bottom shelf of my bus cart," explains the founder of MAF Ground Services (#496). "And I'd sell them for around a buck a bag." Fischer's scheme worked perfectly--for about two weeks. Once his manager caught word of it, he promptly chewed Fischer out, and then sacked him. "I never saw anything wrong with it," contends Fischer. Maybe not, but isn't the thought of buying--and consuming--someone else's leftovers a bit...distasteful? "Relax," Fischer replies. "The food wasn't for people. It was for their dogs." Oh.
3. Your six-year-old whines, "Why can't we have foot traffic like our neighbors do?" As a youngster Don Wilson was looking to make some extra spending money. So he gathered up some pinecones, spray-painted them gold and silver, and loaded them into his trusty wagon, along with some pot holders he'd woven himself. Then Wilson, who would grow up to start MWI Training Services (#489), began peddling his wares door-to-door. Sales were not much better than OK, especially when Wilson factored in his very valuable time. So he pulled his wagon to the nearest shopping center and plunked himself down in front of the hardware store. Business was brisk until a relative ratted on him to his mother, who then confronted her son. "What on earth," she asked, "could have possessed you to do such a thing?" "Mom," he calmly replied, "this is where the people are."
4. Your kid's paper route takes one hour--a month. Delivering newspapers didn't set Alan Dabbiere apart from any other enterprising 14-year-old. Nor did the fact that the future founder of Manhattan Associates (#164) savored after-school sports. But Dabbiere spotted opportunity in an unlikely locale: wedged between those conflicting priorities. Somehow he persuaded a schoolmate to become his subcontractor, handling the delivery. Dabbiere reserved for himself the tough task of collecting money, including tips, once every two weeks. It didn't make any difference to his customers, he reasoned, and since he would still handle complaints, "it wasn't as if I wasn't adding value." What about the other kid? Dabbiere insists he paid him a fair wage. Besides, "he was a great delivery person, and I was a great collector," he says.
5. You take a wrong turn out of the kitchen and find that your house has a new wing. Before he was the architect of his own destiny, Joe Jachinowski designed numerous residential construction projects. Jachinowski, who launched IMPAC Medical Systems (#146), picked up some drafting skills in junior high. Soon his teachers starting providing referrals. By high school, he was working steadily as a--well, it's hard to say. But Jachinowski says that he wasn't an architect. "You need to have a degree and a license to practice," he points out.
6. Your son insists on carrying his homework in a plain brown wrapper. Not all Inc. 500 CEOs are openly proud of their early moneymaking schemes. But prodded by a generous offer of anonymity, plenty of them spilled their guts. Consider, for instance, the sordid story of--we'll call him Hef. When this future Inc. 500 founder was in grammar school, he began raiding the neighborhood trash cans for discarded copies of Playboy. No, he didn't pretend to be interested in the articles. He zeroed right in on the pictures, carefully cutting them out, paper-clipping them together, and selling them to his classmates at recess. "My only overhead was a pair of scissors and a flashlight," he says proudly. "It was high risk but low cost." That gamble eventually caught up with him, and he landed in the principal's office, on the receiving end of a lecture about "business ethics." He relived the episode recently when he got a call from his second-grader's school. His daughter, the authorities huffed, had been harboring Playboy."At least she wasn't caught selling it," says Hef. "Maybe she's smarter than I was."