Five Lessons on Entrepreneurship: From 11 Year Olds
On my first day of teaching an entrepreneurship program to 5th graders, one of my new pupils approached me before the start of the class and asked, “What do you see, Mr. Seewald?” Given that I was staring at a large eraser and wasn’t expecting a Socratic-like question from a 5th grader, I responded with the obvious: “An Eraser.” He replied, “Wrong. It’s a face. It has an emotion. And it tells your classmates your mood.” I couldn’t resist laughing at this clever and unexpected explanation. After all, I was just about to start the class by teaching a lesson on creativity and now found myself on the receiving end of my own lesson. I simply saw an eraser, whereas he saw an opportunity to turn a common classroom item into a non-verbal signal of his emotional state. He was seeing possibility where I only saw the obvious. He was already thinking like an entrepreneur. This first interaction was one of the many learnings about entrepreneurship that I gleaned over the course of the two-month program. Below are the Top 5 lessons that I picked up from a group of 5th grade entrepreneurs.
PS: That same young entrepreneur and his erasers became a hot selling item. Two months after he conceived of the idea, he promoted and sold his product, e-Facers, at our entrepreneurial marketplace and sold out after 90 minutes.
Lesson #1: Creative Resiliency
Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody has a plan…until they get punched in the mouth.” The good news is that our entrepreneurship program did not require any child being punched by Mike Tyson. Instead, many of our young entrepreneurs did experience the vicissitudes of identifying a business idea, only to discover that the original idea might not work well. More than half of the starting business ideas eventually pivoted to something different, and often vastly improved. In those early moments of frustration, however, the students needed to develop creative resiliency. Creative resiliency is one of the cornerstones of entrepreneurship. Our children were prepared and encouraged to allow for their initial concepts and assumptions to fail. To prepare them we discussed the mantra of ‘never falling in love with your idea.’ Once you fall in love with your idea, you are reluctant to change the idea even if it is in the best interests of your business’ overall success. In general, we found that the children were much better at creative resiliency than adults. Perhaps because children have not yet been fully indoctrinated in the rules of adult life, they have less hesitation to let go of their convictions and reinvent. As an entrepreneur, if we shut off the valve of creativity every time we face an unexpected challenge, we would never succeed with our ambitions.
Lesson #2: Curiosity Fuels Success
As an entrepreneur, the ability to “see what everyone else is seeing yet thinking what no one else has thought before,” is the hallmark of a great entrepreneur. And the ability to see things differently is fueled by curiosity. The teams who were most successful shared a common trait: They were intensely curious and asked many questions of their potential customers. The children did not assume they knew the perfect design or promotional strategy. To help the children learn this lesson, we introduced the concept of market research and customer testing. Each team was given a basic overview of creating a customer discussion guide and a tutorial on how to interview customers in order to learn. I found that the teams that asked the most questions and dug the deepest with their questions, seemed to do the most pivoting with their ideas. The power of effective questioning, listening and learning seems obvious, but children, just as adults, have a tendency to assume they already know the answers. Those who constantly asked questions and avoided making assumptions were the ones with the best developed business plans and products.
Lesson #3: Entrepreneurship can be Learned
I grew up believing that you were born an entrepreneur. Like Tom Sawyer charging neighborhood boys to whitewash his fence, some children just instinctively have what it takes. Warren Buffett, the multibillionaire chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, without goading or training began his entrepreneurial career delivering newspapers and selling lemonade. Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, built his empire from the humble beginnings of a small general store that he launched with almost zero dollars in capital. There is an abundance of research that suggests that genetics play a significant role in one’s willingness to take risk and to start a business. However, as with every research study, there is competing evidence. Researchers have also found that experience matters. Entrepreneurs who had previous experience as an entrepreneur were generally more successful. The conclusion: Entrepreneurship can be learned and developed. Perhaps the most compelling insights that I gleaned came from a competition that we conducted on the last day of the program. At the end of the two-month program, we conducted a challenge in which teams of students were given 30 minutes to build a business case and a pitch for a customer need that they were randomly assigned. The quality and depth of the business plans had matured dramatically from the plans they produced at the start of the program. You could clearly see that the earlier experiences that they cultivated during the program had shaped the way they thought about developing a new business. So if you want your kids to become the next Warren Buffett, perhaps you should think about encouraging them to start their own business now.
Lesson #4: Customers Buy Stories
People buy brands, not products. And brands are built on storytelling. This is a difficult concept to teach adults, let alone children. Most people subscribe to the classical economic point of view that human beings are rational, utility maximizers. We buy for purpose and function and are not likely to be swayed by a good pitch. But one young entrepreneur’s journey really brought home the importance of storytelling. This young entrepreneur struggled early-on to develop a compelling business concept. With only a matter of weeks before the entrepreneur’s marketplace did she land on a business concept: Selling Tin Cans. Admittedly, when I first heard the concept, I was somewhat judgmental. I didn’t see a clear unmet need, didn’t see a compelling customer value proposition and wasn’t sure why a customer would want to buy the product. In short, I was concerned that her product would be a flop at the marketplace. It turns out that I was wrong. Her product was the first to sell out. Why? She didn’t sell tin cans. She was selling reclaimed metal that was being turned into artwork. Each can was unique. And every can had a story. Her personal storytelling and vivacity converted every single potential customer into a buyer. People buy stories. Not just products.
Lesson #5: Entrepreneurship is a Team Sport
I always thought of entrepreneurs as lone crusaders. People who left the traditional corporate world so that they could become their own boss. Like a boxer who stands in the ring, they do battle by themselves and stand alone in victory or defeat. But I have found that this is generally not true. The majority of entrepreneurs are flanked by friends, colleagues and supporters. And the most successful entrepreneurs often surround themselves with a supporting cast with complementary skillsets. As important as it is to have a strong leader, the contributions made by teammates can make all of the difference. One team of female entrepreneurs really drove home this point. Initially, the team of female entrepreneurs were each pursuing their own ideas. They were each progressing rather slowly at the outset until they decided to join forces. Their different strengths turned three struggling entrepreneurs into a single start-up business that became well-orchestrated. One girl was a great talker and salesperson, another was a good designer and builder and yet another had a good business sense and made key suggestions on marketing and promotion. Together, they were stronger as a single unit. And they underscored the importance of entrepreneurship not being typecasted as the domain of a lone visionary. Entrepreneurship is a team sport.