Categorized | Shoestring Startup

Accidental Teen Entrepreneur

A simple idea can change your life. That’s what happened to me when I was nine years old. In October, 2005, my mom was making a product to sell at a craft fair before Thanksgiving. I thought if I helped her paint her craft product that she would split the money with me. To my surprise, Mom said I should come up with my own idea. So I did and soon Pencil Bugs were born.

Making twenty-four Pencil Bugs wasn’t as easy as it appeared on paper when I first drew out my design so thankfully, my hard work paid off and they all sold out at the craft fair. The handcrafted colorful, bug-like pencil toppers made doing homework a little more fun and they looked cool on a pencil, pen, or even marker. They also made good little finger puppets. I made some extra money at the craft fair and life was good.

Since I wasn’t planning on starting a business at that age, I didn’t give my idea too much thought after that. I made a few more and took them to school to show my friends. Kids, parents, and teachers started ordering them and before long, I was getting so busy making Pencil Bugs that I had to set up an assembly line with my free help (Mom and Dad). The thought of turning my idea into a real business still didn’t hit me until one day in fourth grade when I got an offer that made me think twice.

One of my classmates pulled out two fifty dollar bills from his pocket and offered to buy my business. Even at nine, I was pretty financially savvy so I turned him down and decided that my simple idea could really go somewhere. By February, 2006, a few months after I turned ten, my parents helped me get a business license, sales tax ID, and the rest of the legal documents. I had already designed my logo and business cards. Mom designed and still maintains my website which is pretty handy since my parents are still my only “employees” but are willing to work for free.

In addition to the original Pencil Bugs, I also offer matching laminated bookmarks with the eight Pencil Bug characters and have greeting cards for various occasions as well as birthday invitations and thank you cards. Customers from all over the world have purchased my products. In fact, Pencil Bugs have landed in more places than I have.

One of the main advantages of being a young entrepreneur is that we can take things slowly but that’s good advice for people of all ages. Too many times when people jump into things, especially financially, they make bad decisions. Because I took one step at a time and watched how I spent, and saved my money, my business has always been in the black. I am also proud of the fact that I have been able to build my business and get lots of local and national media recognition, free publicity, and win awards all without a marketing budget at all. I was the youngest at age eleven to receive the Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award. At twelve, Forbes named me on their first Top 10 List of Role Models 18 & Under. My story has been featured in numerous blogs, newspapers, magazines, and books including Chicken Soup for the Soul: Extraordinary Teens. I have appeared on local and national TV including episode #301 of the PBS series BizKid$. It can be done but you just have to be more creative and look at all opportunities.

Money is great but it is more important what you do with it than how much you have. As soon as I started my business, I began donating a portion of my proceeds to help other kids. Each quarter, I buy toys, games, books, and other activities for kids at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, California. For Christmas 2009, I held a fundraiser and raised over $5,000 which enabled me to buy 1800 teddy bears for the kids. It was such a big success that I am doing it this year again and have coined the project, “The Bears Are Back in Town.”

My business has not made me rich and I am not donating millions of dollars to charity, although some day I hope to. But as I like to remind people, “It’s not how much you give but that you do something because even the smallest effort can make a difference in someone else’s life.” One misconception is that wealth equals success and vice versa but there are so many other ways to be rich or successful. Everything is a comparison and each of us has our own set of standards and benchmark.

The original Pencil Bugs are very time-consuming to hand make which is why we began working with various manufacturers a few years ago to get them mass produced. It was a necessary step to expand into retail stores. However, although the cute, little pencil toppers look easy at first glance, no manufacturer to date has been able to make my product at the quality and price we need.

One of the things I have learned about business, and life, is that it is important to keep your options open. There may come a time when Pencil Bugs will become extinct and grabbing other opportunities is a sign of a good entrepreneur. It is important to make things happen but not to force things to happen.

After being in business a couple of years, I finally set up a Twitter and Facebook account and also started blogging. I was sharing tips and advice I had learned from my parents, grandparents, and other business people I had met. One day someone suggested I put everything in a book so that became my next project. It took almost two years of writing, editing, and editing some more but finally in June, 2010, my first book was published. “Bitten by the Business Bug: Common Sense Tips for Business and Life from a Teen Entrepreneur” is the complete opposite of the philosophies and practices we’ve seen in corporate America, government, and on Wall Street. At fourteen, I realize I still have a lot to learn but business and life does not have to be complicated and sometimes it takes a kid to simplify things. Common sense is hard to teach but through short stories, I share my experiences, values, creativity, and advice on many different topics. As Mark Victor Hansen, co-author of Chicken Soup for the Soul wrote in his endorsement for my book, “This kid has more common sense than most grown-ups! A must-read whether you’re trying to run a business or trying to run your life.”

Having a book means public speaking and promoting it but that is the part I have enjoyed the most since I started my business. I gave my first presentation to a group of thirty adults when I was just ten years old. From there, I began speaking at schools, libraries, and community organizations sharing my story and inspiring people of all ages to try their ideas. When Mark Victor Hansen called to interview me for his book, The Richest Kids in America, I was beyond excited. That led to many speaking opportunities and sharing the stage with some very well-known entrepreneurs, authors, and celebrities.

So while my original Pencil Bugs may become extinct in the future, I am doing more public speaking and the opportunities from major events and conferences have opened up new doors. An important tip to remember: If you get too stuck on one goal, you may miss opportunities right beside you. A good business keeps changing. It takes a creative entrepreneur to realize how to take advantage of those changes.

I have been very fortunate that my parents have always supported my ideas and have been there to teach me every step of the way. Without them, I know I would not be where I am today in business or life.

When someone asks, “Do you run your business yourself?” I have to laugh and usually respond with, “How many teenagers or younger kids could do this alone? Even most adults need help with some things now and then.” People shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help. That is one of the greatest things about social networking – there is always someone who is willing to help if you just ask.

Being a young entrepreneur has had its advantages but also challenges. The biggest one is probably all of the legal aspects since minors are not allowed to sign anything legal. And sometimes people don’t take you seriously and think you are just a kid with a cute, little hobby. However, the advantages far outweigh the few challenges.

Regardless of age, “Try your ideas! Doing nothing guarantees nothing!”

Jason O’Neill, Entrepreneur/Speaker/Author
Creator/Founder of Pencil Bugs Plus

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