The Joy of Raising a Teen Entrepreneur by Jason WeisenthalFirst, here’ a warning: I’m about to brag about my child but I promise it’s for a good reason. My 13-year-old son Zachary earned more this past weekend than most of today’s recent college graduates can hope to make in a week. He’s also his own boss. Zachary builds websites and not just for his friends. He’s developed ecommerce sites for companies that sell everything from jewelry to shaving cream. Other clients, including the operator of a menopause-counseling blog and a professional race car driver, have hired him to design their blogs. Yes, I’m proud of his success. But I’d be just as supportive if his company, ZachsWebDesigns.com, were struggling. That’s because at this stage of his life, Zachary’s business has more value as an educational resource than as a source of income. In fact, I’m not ashamed to admit that he is learning more in his professional life than he is in school. Scandalous, right? Actually, no. At 13, Zachary has learned how to converse with clients, whether through email, by phone or in person. On any given day, he’s thinking about monthly maintenance contracts and recurring revenue streams. If his site goes down, he calls the web host not his daddy. No, I’m not saying he should forget about high school and head to Silicon Valley. But let’s not pretend that the kinds of skills he’s developing as a young businessperson are any less critical to having a fulfilling, prosperous life than what he’s learning in the classroom. Why should he wait until after college to learn the ins and outs of the business world? He’s already come to realize the enormous value of networking. He was lucky enough to attend a Maverick1000 networking event this summer and connect with many of my mastermind friends. Being surrounded by a group of successful, generous businesspeople changed the way he viewed connections. The meeting taught him lessons that most young people don’t learn until they’re well into their 20s or 30s — if ever. But the most important thing he’s learned as an entrepreneur is how to identify his passions and pursue them without hesitation. And it’s this skill that I would encourage most parents to cultivate in their kids. If your child has an idea for a business, let him or her give it a go. If the child succeeds, then great. If he or she fails, even better. Indeed, teaching a child to not fear failure is one of the best ways for parents to prepare their kids for success in life. Before Zachary started building websites, he tried his hand at dog walking, lawn mowing, shoveling snow and an ecommerce site that never took off. With every unsuccessful venture, he learned from his mistakes. It was just a matter of time before one of his passions paid off. Without a doubt, his having a dad who’s an entrepreneur doesn’t hurt. We talk business all the time. But whenever he asks for help, the first thing I say is “What do you think?” I’ve learned that I need to let Zachary do it his way first, whether he succeeds or fails. I’m not discounting the value of formal education. Zachary has an A average and loves to socialize with his school friends. But I wouldn’t for a minute let him think that his academic work is any more important than his professional responsibilities. He rushes home from school many days to do his homework, so he can get to his real work, which as far as he’s concerned isn’t work at all. Many parents are appalled by this view. “Schoolwork should always come first,” they insist. “What about college?” As they see it, disagreeing with the accepted wisdom about education is tantamount to child abuse. But formal education isn’t always the bargain that many people pretend it is. In the case of college, the sticker price is about $200,000 and rising. That doesn’t include the opportunity cost of spending four years insulated from the pressures and demands of adult life. Plus, there’s no guarantee that a job will await today’s college students once they get a diploma. For many young people, college might provide the path to a satisfying life. But for those like Zachary, who are already moving forward with their careers, it’s not obvious that four years of dorm life, term papers and multiple-choice exams are in their best interest. In the same four years, an entrepreneurial young person could be earning money, gaining valuable life experience and building his or her network. When you consider the costs, it would be a disservice to today’s youth to not consider if skipping college might be a better investment. If you’re genuinely concerned about educating your kids, nurture their entrepreneurial side. Help them find an idea that ignites their imagination and let them find a way to turn that idea into a business. Give them the tools and emotional support they need but don’t hold their hand. And be ready to let them fail. It’s the best preparation for success.
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