My son just turned ten. He's a good student, athletic, kind, and everything a father could possibly want in a son. However, I must admit that I'm a trifle disappointed that he's never tried to start his own business.
I find that unfortunate because my childhood involved many, many attempts to make extra money, attempts that taught me crucial business lessons that otherwise I would have been forced to learn as an adult. Here are five of them:
1. People don't value what's free.
I've always liked being on stage, so when I was around seven, I'd hold talent shows in my garage, featuring me and whomever else I could rope in as a cast member. I set out kitchen chairs for seating and made posters announcing show times.
Initially, I offered these shows for free. Nobody came. One day, I decided to charge admission. Boom! All the kids in the neighborhood showed up. It was then I realized that people only value something when they must pay for it.
I think of those talent shows whenever I read about freeware, or about free consulting, or just about free anything. Yes, freebees can raise awareness of what you've got to offer, but until somebody forks across dough, they'll consider your product to be worthless trash.
2. Location, location, location.
Most kids have a lemonade stand at some time in their childhood. Not me. I was into dinosaurs so I opened a fossil stand. I stocked it with fossils I'd found in a nearby park where they'd paved the walkways with sandstone gravel.
They were mostly fossil shells--a far cry from dinosaurs--but I thought the fossils were so incredibly interesting that I was absolutely certain that I'd make big money selling them to other kids.
I hammered together a couple of shelves, set them up on the sidewalk with a huge sign "FOSSILS!"
Unfortunately, my fossil was stand was 50 feet from the park where I'd found them. It didn't take long for potential buyers to notice they could just pick up random paving gravel and find the same product I was trying to sell to them.
In retrospect, I probably would have done better with the lemonade stand--especially if I'd sold it to all the kids who were in the park finding fossils of their own. That thought never occurred to me, alas.
3. Big ideas get more attention.
Having failed in the retail fossil business, I cast around for another way to make extra cash. At the time, a kid down the street put on a front-yard carnival, charging people to do bean-bag tosses, horseshoes, and so forth.
Rather than imitate that penny-ante stuff, I decided to build a 9-hole miniature golf course in our back yard. I used old planks, pipes and cinderblocks, with buried tin cans so that when you sank a putt you got that satisfying "kerplunk."
For about a week, I was the most popular kid on the block and I made what for then was a fair amount of money, until my father found out that I was using his golf clubs without permission, after which, alas, I was forced to close up.
That experience taught me two things. First, ask your dad before borrowing his stuff. Second, it's usually more profitable to implement a big idea that requires a lot of work than a bunch of little ideas that are easy-to-execute.
4. Ideas are worthless until implemented.
With my golf course prematurely closed, I needed another big money-making idea. Here's what I came up with: a "haunted house" ride in my bedroom.
Here was my idea. You'd get into my red metal wagon while it was on my bed, and then I'd shove you down an inclined plane consisting of two long planks slanting from the edge of my bed into my closet, which I planned to fill with "scary" things.
Unfortunately, the only scary thing I owned at the time was a 1"³ high glow-in-the-dark skull that had come with a set of tiny cigarettes that, when lit, would blow smoke rings. Since this wasn't very scary, I was forced to give up the entire idea as impractical.
Nowadays, people often send me their ideas for a business (or a book) and think they've done all the work. But I learned way back then that it's not the idea that counts, but whether and how well you can turn that idea in a reality.
5. Think twice and ask advice.
At that point, I decided to do some research--by reading through an entire "start your own business" mail-order catalog. Here's what I decided was a sure-fire money-maker: owning my own mushroom farm.
With dollar signs in my eyes, I ordered a cake of "mushroom spawn." Unfortunately, it turned out that the mushrooms had be grown in buckets of horse manure kept someplace dark, like my closet.
It did not take long for my mother to figure out the source of the smell and, after being firmly reprimanded, I was forced to resign myself to the fact that I would never become the mushroom king of north central Ohio.
Even today, I have a tendency to get all excited when I come up with a new business idea. However, I've learned to "think twice and ask advice" because there's always a chance that what I think is brilliant actually smells like a mushroom farm.