This post is part of our StartupDad Series, in which David Moody — father of a teen entrepreneur and founder of the StartupDad blog — explores the trials, tribulations, joys, and achievements that young entrepreneurs and their friends and family face.
Our son, Joshua, has always been curious about how things worked and, as he grew older, had his own ideas about how things could be improved. It was obvious that he saw the world around him differently than most people. While many of us fly through our day taking many of the products and services we use for granted, Joshua always seemed to have an idea for a better design or a new product.
When he was very young, he would take the toys in Happy Meals apart to see how they worked. When he drew pictures for school projects, he portrayed unusual angles and multiple dimensions. In the picture to the left depicting a giant, for example, Joshua utilized foreground and background elements, showcasing a sense of spatial recognition at an age younger than average (he was 7 or 8). Engineers also have this trait.
He’s also always been very curious about how things work. Once, when we returned from a vacation, he asked if he could have the portable Kodak camera. After downloading the pictures, it didn’t take him long to discover the power supply by completing an electronic circuit with his finger. That got his attention!
He spent much of his free time from about 11 years old until now researching electronics, learning how to code, building printed circuit boards, and learning how to do things on YouTube and Instructibles. One of his first projects was a phone charging dock with speakers made out of a cardboard box and some salvaged parts from other electronics (pictured at right).
He learned how to “jail break” iPhones (a hack that overrides the built-in limitations of the phone and allows for greater customization) in his early teens and sold his services to his classmates. When we discovered he was doing this, which was followed by a discussion of why it was a bad idea, I asked him how much he charged and how he knew how to price it. He replied that his pricing varied a little bit because he charged an amount that made it worth it for him, but also that his classmates could afford without having to ask their parents for the money and run the risk of being told “no”. I knew then that we had an entrepreneur on our hands; Joshua was 13 when I finally made the connection.
The point here is that I’ve owned and led startup companies, and work with startup businesses and entrepreneurs almost daily in my consulting practice, and yet, I didn’t see the signs of Joshua having entrepreneurial traits for quite some time. I didn’t know what to look for. This realization is one of the reasons I now write and speak on this subject.
If one of our kids displayed extraordinary talent in athletics, art, music, or had a high level of intelligence at an early age, those signs would be obvious to us and we’d likely seek out programs, teachers and coaches to nurture those gifts. With young, potential entrepreneurs, those talents are far more subtle and more difficult to identify. Joshua’s dismantling of Happy Meals, cameras, and phones could have been considered destructive behavior, and watching “how to” videos on the Internet a waste of time. Turns out, he was educating himself.
Here are some signs that you may have a young entrepreneur on your hands:
- Curiosity about how things work.
- Seeing problems and solutions. Seeing the world differently – Noticing things others don’t. (Caution: This can also lead to strong opinions, fierce independence and significant confidence. This all sounds good until, as a parent, you have to manage and direct it. I’ve always told my wife that our kids having good communication skills when they were young was cute until they became teenagers and used it as a weapon against us. Some days I think we should have never encouraged them to speak.)
- Maturing problem solving skills. Are you witnessing a pattern of problem solving that evolves into dealing with more and more complex issues as your child matures?
- The willingness to use their free time to research how things work, to understand new technologies, and to teach themselves how to do things.
- A sense of economics and the value of things.
- A personality that allows them to pitch their ideas and get others interested in buying their products or services or helping with developing the solution.
As challenging as all these signs may appear to be, the one thing we don’t want to do as parents is to stifle the creativity and innovative thinking of our kids. The system will do enough of that.