This post originally appeared in the blog An Entrepreneur's Front Burner and is reposted with the permission of author Cameron Hay.

diving-into-entrepreneurship-sarah

My 16 year old daughter Sarah was a first time entrepreneur this summer. With some support from the Ontario Government Summer Company Program, she started a business called Little Fins which provided private swimming lessons to kids in their backyard pools.   She has been a competitive swimmer for years, and had all the necessary lifeguarding, swim instructor and emergency first aid qualifications to be a lifeguard or instructor for any swimming pool or swim program in the city. But Sarah chose to be her own boss this summer rather than working for minimum wage for someone else.

As a parent, I am proud of her for choosing entrepreneurship as a path to explore. As a business person who works with tech startups at Communitech and former CEO of a large international health technology company, I was surprised how much I learned from her experience. It was quite frankly refreshing to watch her build a simple service business and it helped remind me to get back to basics. Here are some of the things I re-learned through her experience.

Speed and focus on revenue generation

  • Sarah had 8 weeks to make as much money as possible. She finished grade 10 on June 29, and went back to school on September 3, and had a one week family vacation. This created an 8 week window of opportunity for her to make money, which was a clarifying factor in getting her to focus on the things that mattered. In her case, the most critical thing for her was to sign up as many families as possible within biking distance to fill every possible timeslot in the 8 weeks available. Urgency creates clarity, and she did an amazing job focusing on what was important to generate revenue and ignoring the things that didn't really matter. I've met tech startups that have been in business for years that have had less revenue than Sarah made over the summer. What's worse, they've talked to fewer potential customers than Sarah did as she worked hard to fill her schedule. 

Minimal Viable Product

  • As Sarah was thinking through what to offer in her business, she had lots of great ideas - including doing video stroke reviews for her students, offering video report cards to the parents, and bringing in many of the training techniques her coaches had used with her in her competitive swimming career. These were awesome ideas and would have created true differentiation in her market. They were also complicated to implement reliably without first getting some experience with students doing basic swim instruction. Quite frankly, they were a distraction that could jeopardize her core value proposition.
  • She decided to shelve the complicated stuff, and focus on just offering great swim instruction. She figured out she had enough differentiation with her own swimming competency, and she could always add new elements to her programming after getting real solid market exposure. That was her MVP. It was a smart decision, as it limited her risk and the complexity of her offer, and allowed her to focus on a simple, easy to communicate value proposition that she could deliver with high quality.

Viral marketing and customer delight

  • When Sarah was strategizing how to market her company, she created a pretty sophisticated marketing plan - including delivery of brochures throughout the neighbourhood based on a google earth map showing who had pools in their backyards. She developed a great logo and website, a facebook page, a twitter presence and a variety of mail outs and postings where moms hang out. She also printed high quality t-shirts with her logo and website that she gave to kids upon graduation. These were fantastic core marketing strategies. What trumped them all was the power of moms telling other moms about the program. Her first sessions were filled with people "the hard way" - by cold calling and brochure-ware. Her last session in August was filled exclusively by people that had heard about her program from other moms, and by families that had taken lessons earlier in the year who were so delighted they came back for another session, and this time brought their friends. 

Smart cost control

  • It became clear this summer that my daughter is cheap (just like her old man). She moaned about paying the hundreds of dollars necessary for liability insurance. She hated the costs of hiring employees (especially her younger sister). But she was also smart about where she knew she had to spend money - particularly in marketing. She spent a lot of money for very high quality brochures and ads. She gave $25 t-shirts to her graduating kids. She had a sense that she had to present a high quality image to the market, and that there is great power in delighting her customers by give-aways that are high quality and unexpected. She squeezed every penny very tightly, but she also spent where it mattered. As an aside, she used Wave Accounting's online accounting and invoicing program, which is free to use, and is a great Ontario-made entrepreneneurial success story that is changing small business accounting worldwide.

Sarah was told that she was one of the youngest entrepreneurs in Ontario in the Summer Company Program. She made thousands of dollars of profits over the summer, taught many young children a fundamental life skill, and has a line-up of families that have already signed up for next year. She gained great confidence that even a 16 year old kid has what it takes to build a business successfully, and is now thinking about entrepreneurship as a real possibility in her life choices.

I'd love to see the Summer Company Program expand to encourage more kids to try entrepreneurship. Getting a first job is a great and necessary experience for kids to have. Unfortunately for many kids, a first job is a great way to learn how to be a mediocre employee: compliant, subservient, and in roles where you discover very quickly that there is no reward to do more than the minimum expected. On the other hand, young entrepreneurs learn about being a leader, about owning the challenges in front of you, and about managing complexity. Most importantly, the self-esteem that comes with starting a company from zero and achieving success is truly irreplaceable, and will serve our young citizens well regardless of their career choices later in life.

I applaud the Ontario Government for creating this program, and encourage them to expand the opportunities within this program to expose more of our young people to this experience.