I began starting businesses at a very early age. My mother said that I started around 6 or 7, but I don't remember that at all. I do remember, by 9 or 10, cutting lawns, weeding gardens, fertilizing grass, and cleaning garages. I was largely self-employed all the way through college.
As an adult, I almost forgot and had no appreciation whatsoever for the thousands of things I learned about running a business through these early activities. For example, if you cut lawns for customers, you learn administrative work, like needing a pad to write all the customers' names and phone numbers as well as the dates you cut their lawns. You may need to collect money. You also learn little things, like customer service, that are absolutely essential to success in any business.
The reason I encourage parents to have their kids start businesses is not only because the child will learn a lot that will become engrained in them and useful in starting a business down the road, but also because there is virtually no downside to "failure" when you're young. As a kid, you can try lots of businesses, and if they don't work out, you can just drift into another business.
I don't want to go too far in my conclusions, but sometimes I wonder if it's possible to be an entrepreneur at all if you haven't done it at an early age. Not to mention that having that magical feeling of getting paid for something that you, and you alone, did is irreplaceable. Early wins like this gave me the confidence and desire to continue being an entrepreneur when I got older.
With kids across the country out of school or taking classes online, our foundation's youth entrepreneurship programs are gaining a lot of additional interest. Now is a great time to start thinking about encouraging young entrepreneurs. Here are some simple tips for parents who want to raise the next Bill Gates:
1. Start them early.
They can start as early as 10 or 11 years old, or in middle school, when kids' experiences are really formative.
2. Don't force them to start a business.
Encourage an interest that can be turned into one. Be warned: If you don't ever want them to become an entrepreneur, force them to do a business they don't like.
3. Don't make them develop a product or something tangible.
They can develop a simple service business, which is a business where they use their hands and legs, assuming they are physically capable.
4. Don't get overly involved in the business.
I don't remember my parents ever getting involved in my business in any way, which was pure joy as an adolescent.
Entrepreneurship, like athletics, is some talent but mostly effort and desire. If you get your kid involved early and give them free range, you are going to be pleasantly surprised with the outcome.