What I Learned From Three Middle School Entrepreneurs

By Brian Hamilton, Founder, the Brian Hamilton Foundation

One of the joys of my life is that I get to teach entrepreneurship to different groups. My foundation helps people who have been in prison, high schoolers, middle schoolers, veterans, and more to start businesses.

Why entrepreneurship? It has always been the key to economic mobility for people, especially groups that are disadvantaged. Teaching what I believe is the key to true freedom is always great, but there is something about talking to the kids that is really special. I’m always amazed at what I learn from them.

A recent survey my foundation did in partnership with Junior Achievement found that two-thirds (66 percent) of teens between the ages of 13 and 17 are “likely” to consider starting a business. My recent interactions with students suggest that many are equipped to start now.

Here are two lessons I learned from young entrepreneurs that have stuck with me:

1. Your customers know what kind of business you should start.

One of the harder things in starting a business is figuring out what kind of business to start. I’m struggling with that right now, even though I have many years of experience being an entrepreneur.

Last year, I visited a middle school, and I posed a question to the school and kids: How would you go about figuring out what kind of business to start?

I expected to get the standard adult answers–find something that you love, find something that you’re good at doing, find a business that fills a need. These are good answers, but they are typical.

One of the kids in the class stood up and told me that the way he started his small business was simply by going door to door in his neighborhood and asking people what they needed help with.

This idea stopped me in my tracks because of its simplicity and elegance. Going through a neighborhood and knocking on doors and canvassing people about what they need? Wow, what an approach. You get right to your potential customer and learn about what they want and what they are like. What better way to really know your customer?

We adults overcomplicate things, which becomes a real impediment to getting started with a venture. Complication leads to stagnation and delay. We could all learn a lesson here and start asking more direct questions.

2. Services people really don’t like to do for themselves make great businesses.

If the first approach to figuring out what kind of business to start doesn’t lead you to your answer, this next lesson from a conversation with middle schoolers might.

Last fall, I visited another middle school in Orange County, North Carolina. I did my regular spiel about the benefits of starting a business. Then, I started taking questions. Two students, siblings Aiden and Skyla Wilson, told me about their “pooper-scooper” business (it is exactly what it sounds like: scooping up waste in dog owners’ yards).

I cannot recall where they got the idea from, but scooping poop has every essential element to a great business idea. First, adults usually don’t like picking up their dog’s poop. Second, dog owners would need this service throughout the lives of their dogs. This is called a renewal revenue stream. Third, it doesn’t cost much to start this kind of business–maybe a bucket and some gloves. Fourth, scooping up waste isn’t very pleasant and may bother some people. Therefore, you are going to have limited competition.

It is simply a great business idea. When I was their age, I had run a bunch of service businesses that fit the bill of services people would really prefer not to do for themselves, but nothing this creative. I did snow shoveling, landscaping, and lawn mowing.

One reason I like to get kids started early on their entrepreneurial ventures is that they have not learned what they can’t do, and they are not constrained in their thinking. Even though many of us are literally surrounded by poop and annoyed by it, how many of us would think to start a business like this?

Take a look around and ask yourself what people don’t like to do themselves, and see if maybe it’s something you wouldn’t mind doing. Or, better yet, ask yourself if there’s a solution you have that would eliminate this problem completely. From there, you’re on the right track–just like the next generation of entrepreneurs.