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Entrepreneurial Deja Vu

Have you ever learned something, forgotten the lesson, then rediscovered it after you paid to discover it years later? I did this fall when I took on teaching a bunch of high schoolers how to start their own businesses. The Young Entrepreneur Academy, a Kauffman Foundation brainchild run out of the University of Rochester(, is a great program to encourage entrepreneurship. I jumped at the chance to help these kids find an idea, create a business plan, pitch some investors, and do a trade show launch at the end of their school year.

People come to me to help them launch or grow their businesses given my entrepreneurial track record and my big name school MBA. While I love getting to apply many of the concepts I either learned at school, on the job, or through continual learning, this program gave me an a rather unusual insight: Everything I ever needed to know about entrepreneurship, I learned between age 10 and 12.

I was a paperboy. I was a self employed contractor with our newspaper. I apprenticed for a year under an 11 year old to learn the trade and put myself in line for the next open route. My pay for the first year was a 16 oz. RC Cola and a coffee roll. When I got my route it was the worst one: a morning weekly collection route in a poor neighborhood. So I got up at 4:30, folded my papers, threw them, fought off stray dogs, and then went home and got ready for my full time job, school. After school I would go door to door trying to collect my $.75 fee. I graduated to larger routes with monthly collections and achieved my dream of owning a motorcycle when I 14.

The business model was geared in favor of the supplier and had all the challenges of a weather dependent distribution start up. My  newspapers were paid for COD and all my  customers were given credit. And I was the collection agency. If a customer missed their paper, and called the newspaper, they delivered a second one and charged you ½ month’s profit. Two calls and you threw that house for free. If it rained you paid for the water resistant bags up-front as well.

I learned to overcome challenges by creative adaption. Notes in the papers with “our” telephone number solved my delivery problem. Making sure certain papers landed in certain spots taught me individualized customer service. Seeing lights go out as I walked up the sidewalk followed by no one answering the doorbell, taught me credit risk, and stopping delivery taught me how to stop throwing good money after bad. Pardon the pun:).

So I am walking my group of 14-18 year olds through taking an idea and turning it into a business when my paperboy days flashed in my mind. I smiled when I realized that the most important part of my experience started with my dream. I dreamed of owning a motorcycle and/or an electric guitar. The bass guitar came in my 30’s. That dream led me to be aware of the opportunities available to a 10 year old. And the dream got me through all the unforeseen challenges that come with bootstrapping your business around your full time job. So when a 14 year old asked me whether to go with the  practical idea her parents like or her passion driven idea of a musical community, I told her to go with her passion.

Driving home thinking about the cost of my MBA, I realized that money was spent rediscovering something I learned years before. If the dream is big enough, the facts don’t matter. Dream big, fail often, don’t quit, and keep on smiling.

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