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Flubberr -- it's hard to define but fun to play with. A cross between Silly Putty and clay, the malleable polymer-based blob comes in five colors and scents, including blueberry and cherry. It's the sort of thing any kid would love. But then, it was developed and distributed by kids.
For 13-year-old Alex Milewski and his 14-year-old brother Jacob, founders of Flubberr Brothers, the product is more than just a concoction based on an online recipe they modified. It's also their portal into the world of entrepreneurship and the chance to develop some real-life business skills.
In 1997, the Milewski family received a flyer about the nearby Young Americans Center for Financial Education's annual Young Entrepreneur Marketplace for business owners under 22. Deciding to participate, the boys went into business with a two-product selection: homemade fleece hats and their flagship putty product, which has since become a local sellout every year since its introduction.
But while Flubberr Brothers and Beyond has netted the boys a few hundred dollars a year as well as a chance to win in the Young American Education Foundation's Celebration for Young Entrepreneurs, there have been other less tangible but more important benefits.
"It's a great way to have real life experience with math, organization, and planning skills," says Leslie, the boys' mother. "The experience has opened doors that would not have been opened for them, and they feel they have quite a significant power over their lives with the ability to make decisions."
Experts agree that entrepreneurial activities can be a great experience for kids. In researching her book See Jane Win (Running Press, 2001), child psychologist and author Sylvia Rimm found that most women who were successful executives as adults felt that success was due in some part to entrepreneurial pursuits they had as children.
It's probably just as important for youth to be educated in entrepreneurship as any other course of study, says Steve Mariotti, president of the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (www.nfte.com). "Learning about running a business inspires innovative thinking and has far-reaching effects on their lives," he adds.
Self-employment experience helps kids develop the ability to commit to a project and see it through to completion -- even when it isn't all fun, says Brad Kaufmann, vice president of marketing for Junior Achievement, Inc.
When Jacob and Alex launched their Flubberr business, their mother impressed on them the importance of sticking to production deadlines -- even if it meant making a sacrifice. "We missed a couple of play dates and parties. You've got to stick to the schedule," says Jacob.
When New Jersey teen Michelle Czajkowski was struggling to meet deadlines with her first comic book, Amilie, Warrior of Dolls, she remembers pushing herself to get it done. With 54 pages and 108 drawings, the project involved a lot of time and energy over a year.
"I had to do it but I didn't always want to. I kept motivating myself by thinking that it would be great when it was done," Michelle says. One thing that her mother, Beth Katz, encouraged her to do was to set work hours and stick to them. Michelle made the commitment to spend three hours every other day -- whether she felt like it or not -- working on the book. The commitment paid off in the form of a finished manuscript that her mother and a teacher encouraged her to publish and eventually sell through a local comic shop. And Michelle learned that she could meet her self-imposed schedule and deadlines and still have free time.
Now hard at work on her next project -- Spade, a comic book set in outer space -- Michelle has experienced firsthand the business concept of "continuous improvement," especially in promoting the comic, when her efforts attracted the interest of the local media. While it got a little easier to talk to strangers as time went on, if Michelle made mistakes during interviews or presentations, "I'd remind myself not to repeat them. That way, I'd get better at it," she says.
Michelle is also continuing to develop her artistic skills. "When I do another book, I look at the old book to see what can be fixed or improved," she says.
Drafting a business plan and developing sales literature using word processing or layout programs will strengthen a child's writing skills, while using a simple spreadsheet or money management program, such as Quicken, will help him track expenses and income -- and teach firsthand the value of working within a budget.
And therein lies another critical benefit to exploring self-employment, says Rimm. "Children today often have much money at their disposal, and when they do something entrepreneurial and try to sell things, they discover that earning income is quite hard. That's good perspective for kids to have on the value of money," she says.
Once they start marketing their product or service, they will also gain valuable presentation and communications skills, whether they're doing interviews or actively pitching their business.
"My children are all more comfortable than they had been with speaking in public. The boys have been asked to give talks to classes of other children who are learning about business. That's good for their education and public speaking skills," says Leslie Milewski.
Self-employment has another benefit: It can get kids truly excited about higher education, say experts at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. In a study on the impact of entrepreneurship programs, researchers found that kids enrolled in such programs showed an increase in their interest in attending college.
Even if they want to be their own boss as adults, child entrepreneurs have a more realistic view of self-employment, according to the results from Junior Achievement's 2003 JA Interprise Poll of more than 1,100 teens.
Results indicated that, while teens find the idea of starting their own business alluring, such dreams appear to be firmly grounded in reality. The teens also showed that they were aware of the challenges and risks involved in a startup, the necessary preparation to be successful, and trade-offs between working for others and being self-employed. Eighty-eight percent of the students surveyed also acknowledged a college education would be a factor contributing to their ultimate success.
How can parents help a child with his first real-world work experience? "Be there for them as a resource. Pose questions about business as if they were adults and ask them for responses. Encourage them to talk to adults and business people to increase their communications skills," says Jennifer Kushell, veteran entrepreneur and coauthor of Secrets of the Young & Successful (Fireside, 2003). A good start for a budding business owner would be to access resources on the Internet or at the library. Participating in programs such as Junior Achievement can also give kids access to the tools they need to start a business.
Just like adult business owners, kids may enjoy certain parts of the process more than others. They may be good at selling but not at bookkeeping, or love the creative side but hate deadlines. While parents can and should offer assistance in the more challenging aspects of getting a business off the ground, it's vital the child be the one in charge. Otherwise, lessons won't be learned, even if one of those lessons means failing. Indeed, failure can also be a positive experience -- if handled properly.
"Talk about failure with your kids," says Kushell. "Let them know it's okay. The best thing you can show them is that failure is part of any learning experience. You become stronger from your failures if you can be taught to learn from them and keep getting smarter."
More info: For more information about kid-biz oriented Web sites, check out www.youngandsuccessful.com and Junior Achievement's Titan, where kids and parents can "test-drive" self-employment.
Originally published in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, February 2004.