When a business creates solutions without leaving harm in its wake, it will realize long-term profits and value.
This commonsense approach to business comes naturally for kids — who channel their inner idealism, creativity, and unbridled curiosity to solve problems. Kids don’t launch businesses with the bottom line in view. They have the luxury of not having to work, so their focus remains laser sharp.
In some cases, even their seeming weaknesses — their full dependence, inexperience, and naïveté — prove to be strengths and manifest in effective and conscientious ways. Conscious business leaders of all ages are wise to pay attention to their stories. Here are five things kid entrepreneurs do well.
1. They know their identity.
Having a clear identity is huge. As Gerald Sindell highlighted in his book “Discover Your Genius,” a clear identity provides a yardstick upon which to measure the integrity of your creation; it keeps you focused enough to say no to irrelevant tasks; it builds culture and creates transparency that unifies a team; and it gains customers’ trust. Yet many entrepreneurs only ponder the identity of their business once it comes to a screeching halt.
Kid entrepreneurs almost always ask the critical questions first: Why am I driven to share my product or service with the world? What does my business stand for? What do I stand for? Do my products and services align with that identity? In fact, their identity and what they feel compelled to contribute to the world is almost always the impetus for starting a business in the first place.
Yes, it’s easier for kids to do this because they don’t have a mortgage to worry about. But kids are also naturally driven more by the who than the what. I often ask kid entrepreneurs what they want to be when they grow up. Did you know kids disdain this question? “The question I’d rather answer is who I want to be,” said Shreyas Parab, CEO of NovelTie. “I know I want to be a person who is willing to go off the beaten path, who’s willing to take a chance, who’s willing to fail, and willing to learn from it.”
Today’s kid entrepreneurs seldom know what they want to be, but they almost always know who they want to be.
2. They’re creative.
One of the greatest creative assets for kids is their inexperience. Since kids have the benefit of not knowing what is not possible, they’re more prone to ask, “Why not?”
A study conducted by Tom Wujec, known as the marshmallow challenge, is a prime example of this. Of the groups who tried to build the tallest structure using a marshmallow, dry noodles, tape, and string, MBA students performed worst, architects and engineers performed moderately well, but it was the kindergarteners who inched out on top. They didn’t waste time making rigid plans and creating organizational charts. These kindergarteners dove in the iterative process and experimented over and over until they found a model that worked.
Today’s crop of kid entrepreneurs are a powerful hybrid too, who combine creativity with technology.
Take 14-year-old Lane Karlitz, creator and founder of Study Senses, a mnemonic study app that combines study lyrics to the tune of a popular song. His mentors at the Young Entrepreneurs Academy told him his idea would be too technologically and legally complicated to create. But Karlitz first needed to understand, “Why not?” His open-minded attitude led Karlitz to find flexible solutions. When royalty rights became an issue, he decided to use the karaoke version of songs instead.
Kids ask questions about things that, for everyone else, have become unquestioned assumptions. So, how can we think more like kids do?
One way is by doing kid things. “We believe that connecting play and imagination may be the single most important step in unleashing the new culture of learning,” John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas wrote in their 2011 book “A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change.”
Innovative companies like Google encourage play for this very reason. They install ping-pong tables and pass out light sabers, and they instill policies that require employees to spend one day a week working on whatever they wish. To think like a kid, it helps to act like one.
3. They give back.
Today’s young people are as concerned with making a positive impact as they are with making money. A whopping 94 percent want to use their skills for a good cause. Millennials are known for turning down well-paid jobs for opportunities that take on a more positive role. In my interaction with kid entrepreneurs, they almost always find a way to give back even when the social cause doesn’t have a direct tie-in to their businesses. Their every move isn’t calculated to maximize reward.
Take Max Ash, who set out to solve a timeless problem: How do you make it socially acceptable to play with food? He built his first prototype when he was just 8 years old and now has a line of sports mugs with hoops and nets attached to them. The Chief Kid Officer gives 5 percent of his profits back, not to an organization related to food, but to charities that support people with learning disabilities. For Max, he believes it was his dyslexia that enabled him to think outside the box, or mug, in his case.
4. They seek help.
Many young entrepreneurs can’t even get to a meeting without their parents, so asking for help is a no-brainer.
One of the deathtraps for entrepreneurs is when they start viewing their companies as babies. They micromanage, and then they stall. Research shows that chances of success can be amplified by seeking the right help. In a 2013 executive coaching survey, 80 percent of CEOs said they received some form of mentorship. In another survey conducted by Sage, 93 percent of startups admitted that mentorship is instrumental to success. The natural dependence of kids enables them to seek advice and receive occasional checks, which are critical to success.
5. They think small.
Entrepreneurship is glamorized these days, with hit TV shows like “Shark Tank” and mainstream coverage of startups like Facebook and Dropbox. In today’s zeitgeist of “go big or go home,” thinking small is an undervalued advantage.
No successful company exploded overnight. Yet many entrepreneurs try to scale too quickly. They end up taking shortcuts and compromise on value. Kids, on the other hand, think small because they have smaller egos. They aren’t trying to one-up the next entrepreneur. Theirs is a lesson in humility that all entrepreneurs can learn from.
Kayla Abramowitz is a kid social entrepreneur who has reached a kind of superstardom. She’s donated more than 14,000 DVDs and other entertainment material to every children’s hospital and Ronald McDonald House in the US and Puerto Rico. She stacked up charitable awards, and a few thank-you notes from senators, governors, and even President Barack Obama, in the process.
But she started with a quest to collect 100 DVDs to donate to her local hospital. Even now, she keeps her eyes on the prize. “The fact that people are recognizing me and showing me they care, it means the world to me,” Abramowitz said. “But seeing that smile on the kids’ face, it’s just heartwarming and it shows just how much my organization really helps these kids.”
It’s great to have a vision, but if the end goal is simply to become big, you may skimp on the fundamental building blocks and compromise your vision and values.
The bottom line
Of course, the experience we gain as entrepreneurs and business leaders is invaluable. But it’s often worthwhile to get out of our own heads and learn from a set of thinkers who are able to see things differently. These kid entrepreneurs and others like them are the future of sustainable business, and they can teach us a lot about how that future may look.
Deborah Song writes at lemoandepost.com. She’s passionate about helping young people find work they’re called to do.