I’ve been an entrepreneurial since I can remember. When adults would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up my answer always was, “CEO”. I’ve jumped in and out of entrepreneurship since I was ten years old. It never really dawned on me that those moments of dipping my toes into entrepreneurship as a kid really was teaching me critical business lessons for the future.
Growing up in the late 80’s I did a lot of things that would not be possible now. I’m lucky I got those experiences and I am very lucky those experiences all turned out positive.
My first stint at entrepreneurship
At ten years old, circa mid ’80s, I started my first business. My best friends were reading the Babysitter Club books and decided we should start a babysitting business. Back then, ten-year-old kids could babysit but you could also smoke on planes so we know not all the best decisions were being made. I didn’t really have an interest in babysitting but I loved dogs, so we decided we would also offer pet sitting. We started a business on the spot and I ran home to make flyers on my Apple IIe computer to pass around the neighborhood. The flyers had little square dots that plotted together to spell out our names, a list of services we provided, and our rates.
We went door to door handing out our flyers, canvassing the whole neighborhood and then went home to wait for the phone to ring. Note: I would not recommend this business strategy for kids nowadays but back then going door to door selling things as a kid was pretty common. In fact, most of my neighbors would grab their checkbook when they saw me coming because they knew I wasn’t leaving until they bought something. And yes, I said checkbook.
Our business was quite successful and I learned two valuable entrepreneurial lessons
1. If you’re the only one offering the service you get all the business if you show up.
2. It’s not the amount of work you put into a service that defines the value. It’s the perceived value by the person buying the service.
Since, I was the only pet sitter I got to watch all the dogs, cats, hamsters and goldfish in the neighborhood. Generally, I’d get hired for a weekend which would entail going to the house a few times a day to play and care for the animals, pick up the mail if there was any, and turn on and off lights so it seemed like someone was home. Pretty simple work a few hours a day and I could do more than one job at a time. I’d get about $20-30 a weekend per house. For a ten-year-old, that was big time money in the ’80s.
Meanwhile, my friends got paid $1/hr per kid and would usually be booked Friday and Saturday nights 5-10 pm and make about $20 on a weekend. It was funny people, would pay more for their pet care than their kid care. I launched a year before PetSmart was founded and three years before they started offering pet care. I had good entrepreneurial instincts and was onto something – too bad I didn’t follow it through.
My college side hustle – network marketing
Fast forward to college, I was involved in a ton of activities on campus and was always coordinating t-shirt designs and orders. I loved doing it and coming up with fun slogans for groups to sell as fundraisers. I placed so many orders with a friend who had a t-shirt making business he said, off the cuff one day, you should do this as a living. Laughing, I said yeah that would be fun and thought nothing of it. Then at the end of the semester he showed up with a big check. It was my commission for all the shirt sales I had done that semester. Turns out he thought I accepted a sales job that day he told me I should do it for a living. That was my first glimpse of network marketing, another great entrepreneurial business option.
I learned that if you have an audience people want to sell to, they are willing to pay you to talk to them and recommend services.
Unfortunately, the day after I got that commission check I was headed off to study abroad. By the time I realized I had a nice little business I could build, I was leaving the country.
My international network marketing business
It didn’t take long for my entrepreneurial skills to kick-in abroad. Once in Mexico, I met up with twenty-three other students from across the Midwest that were studying abroad with me. We had classes Monday-Thursday leaving us the opportunity to travel Thursday-Sunday. We traveled every single weekend. Living an hour south of Mexico City in Cuernavaca, made an ideal hub to explore Mexico. That first week, we traveled to Acapulco via bus. We all bought individual tickets at the bus station, no one was in charge, and it haphazardly came together. We ended up having every seat on the bus except for two. I felt bad for the locals traveling with us.
I saw the power we had as a large group, we took over a bus, a hotel floor, then we got VIP service at the clubs. It was a blast, but I could have done with a little nicer travel accommodations.
The next week, I pulled out my Travel Mexico book (pre-internet) and we picked our next destination. This time, I organized the trip. I collected travel fees for all twenty plus kids and bought our plane tickets for travel to beach destinations all over the country. Once we’d reach our destination, I’d drop the group at the first beach bar and head off to negotiate with hotel owners for the best deal in town.
The business lesson I learned during my study abroad was about supply and demand. I had a big group of people, with cash, ready to spend in the off season when there was a lot of supply and not a lot of demand.
Another entrepreneurial lesson: an abundance of supply coupled with a lack of demand creates buying power
We got amazing accommodations in every town for prices that were always lower than the local hostel. This was before the days of Expedia and oversold flights. I acted as their travel concierge – again I was ahead of my time.
I think a lot about the lessons I learned and the circumstances that allowed me to do these things. In each circumstance there was an unmet need – someone to care for pets before doggy day care, someone to find the best travel deals before Expedia, someone to recommend products before social media influencers. There was work required to meet the unmet need – anyone could have done it but I took the initiative to do it. There was an audience, a community with a common interest – a neighborhood, student groups, travelers. Even though it was decades ago, these principles still matter when you’re building a business. Make sure you understand your unique circumstances and what lessons you can apply.
Entrepreneurial lessons learned
- If you’re the only one offering the service you get all the business if you show up.
- It’s not the amount of work you put into a service that defines the value. It’s the perceived value by the person buying the service that sets market price.
- An abundance of supply coupled with a lack of demand creates buying power.
- If you have an audience people want to sell to, they are willing to pay you to talk to them and recommend services.
Look around and discover what the need is in your community. Build your niche. Solve a problem people don’t even know they have. That’s entrepreneurship.