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Can next generation of entrepreneurs deliver?

Curt Nickisch Jul 6, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: We saw a story in the papers the other day. A survey of British businessmen. It showed 84 percent of them earned money as kids. Mainly with a paper route. But if you’re hanging around your front porch in the morning when the paper comes, you know the classic paper boy has gone the way of Mayberry. So is the US losing an entrepreneurial breeding ground? From the Marketplace Entrepreneurship Desk, Curt Nickisch looks below the fold.

CURT NICKISCH: Bill Larkins still remembers every house and every name. Especially the stingiest tippers who lived the furthest from all the other homes on his route. Each day he climbed the long hill on his bicycle to the house guarded by a white poodle.

BILL LARKINS: It was one of those classic yippy dogs. And you had to get that door open, shove the paper in and make sure the little, yippy dog didn’t get out.

At first, Larkins learned to be dependable to keep his business. Soon, though, he rolled those spinning bike tires into new ways to make money.

LARKINS: One of the interesting things about having a paper route is you would find out who needed to have their lawn cut, so you could actually work both ends of that. Sort of like a built-in marketing route.

Eventually Larkins looked for more green on the greens — as a caddy. It’s there that he earned repeat clients by not just carrying golf clubs, but also by offering unsolicited advice. He uses that lesson today as a small business owner.

LARKINS: As an entrepreneur, sometimes you think: I gotta take a risk with this customer. If they do that five-iron, they’re not going to be pleased with the results. And if I tell them they need the seven-iron and it works for them, they’ll be back.

Larkins started a New Hampshire company manufacturing shock absorbers, and he credits much of its success to what he learned on the greens and on his bicycle. Today, though, kids often get their first brush with entrepreneurship in the classroom, instead.

In this middle school, one small group assignment was to come up with a killer product:

BOY: Ours is called the nano-camera. And you see it will be as small as a credit card. It also has a telephone, an atomic clock, and a taser gun.

But it might be nothing more than academic to teach entrepreneurship in school without real-world market input. Dartmouth College economics professor David Blanchflower says some kids have it in their DNA. Some don’t. He says they can only discover the self-starter within when they’re out in the real world.

DAVID BLANCHFLOWER: Sell Scout cookies, sell lemonade . . . . Some of those are declining but there’s new opportunities. People have done things on the Internet, they’ve been able to write software programs, make money being able to play computer games.

One example is Noah Hornik. Like a lot of his friends, Noah skateboards. Unlike them, though, he does not aspire to be a professional skater. He wants to be the boss.

NOAH HORNIK: I want to be in charge. Partly because you make the most money and to get my ideas out there.

Noah is just 8 years old and has started his own line of skate clothing that he sells online. He draws designs on the computer — mainly stick figures boarding with different color hats. The brand name, Ollie King, is scribbled down the side.

HORNIK: I want to see it turn into a real skate brand, and get it funded, and have, like, a shop and a warehouse and a skate team. I’d get to meet, like, some pro skaters and then I could also go to, like, skate competitions for free and stuff like that.

If Noah Hornik is a good example of what’s out there, American entrepreneurship is not threatened by the loss of those Beaver Cleaver enterprises like paper routes and caddying. Online and on the ground, kids are still finding ways to get their first taste of entrepreneurship. And if they decide to take a bigger bite, the market will be waiting.

I’m Curt Nickisch, for Marketplace.

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