The rise of school-aged soloists
Real or imaginary risk puts off plenty of aspiring entrepreneurs from taking the plunge, especially if they are faced with the prospect of doing it all by themselves.
But one section of society is partially sheltered from the dangers of going solo, leading to a noticeable uplift in their start-up success stories.
We’re referring to school-aged entrepreneurs – opportunistic, fast-thinking people who happen to start a business when they’re in their teens and, for the most part, living at home.
Unlike other businesspeople, school-aged entrepreneurs enjoy a relatively stress-free existence – there is no mortgage to manage, no family to feed, and a lot less pressure to deliver something.
This means they are in a position to devote more time and money to their business, without worrying about what could go wrong.
Nikki Durkin, founder of fashion-swapping marketplace 99dresses, started her first profitable business at the age of 15, designing T-shirts that were printed in China and sold on eBay.
By 16, Durkin was a powerseller, partly because she had no living expenses to worry about.
“I actually started my business from my boarding school dormitory where I couldn’t really hold stock. Therefore I entered into a drop ship arrangement with my supplier,” Durkin says.
“This was great because it required very little start-up capital – the shirts were printed on demand after I sold them and shipped out by the supplier – and no inventory risk.”
Brad Smith, who founded dirt bike brand Braaap when he was 16, agrees youth is an advantage because you have nothing to lose.
“[There is] no expectation to carry, and no idea what is right and what is wrong. For me, it was all go, go, go. Fail, fix it, fail, fix it, fail, fix it,” he says.
“I loved working from home but I was possessed… I didn’t look for the comfort of home. I was looking for growth – I was hungry as hell to learn, grow and create.”
Durkin says she found it fairly easy to manage her money simply because rent and food weren’t part of the equation.
“I had a penchant for clothes, so I’d sometimes just go on massive shopping sprees on the weekend and buy whatever I wanted,” she admits.
“I invested some of my profits in other little ventures and business experiments, but the rest I saved up.”
Meanwhile, Cardnap founder Lachy Groom, who started his first business at just 13, initially struggled to stay level-headed about the money he was making.
“I remember one day getting home from school and logging into my PayPal account for the first time in a while and wondering where all the money came from,” Groom says.
“It can definitely be overwhelming at times… I managed my money very poorly, spent far too much and didn’t have the right structure in place.”
“I would advise anyone to get a good accountant or advisor to help you manage your money well.”
Smith says the best way to keep your excitement in check – as a cashed-up school-aged entrepreneur living at home – is to make yourself accountable.
“I kept my excitement and passion for growth in balance by making sure I was surrounded by a great group of peers who have been through the highs and lows of growth and business,” he says.
“I think social expectation is the most powerful form of accountability, so I have a group of people who I bounce ideas off.”
Durkin doesn’t believe you’re ever too young to start a business. In fact, she encourages people to start as early as possible, if only for the learning experience.
“Before I started an actual business at 15, I would make and sell stuff all the time – jewellery, paintings, dresses, bags, cookies – from the age of about seven,” she says.
“You may lose a bit of money when you are young and inexperienced, but everyone has to start somewhere.”
Similarly, Groom says school-aged entrepreneurs shouldn’t be afraid to make mistakes.
“Honestly, I wish I had learned this earlier. You learn the most out of your mistakes,” he says.
“I do feel it’s important not to take it all too seriously when you’re very young. It’s best to enjoy yourself and let it become more serious as you grow up and need to start earning money.”
Durkin believes eBay is a great place to start if you’re a school-aged entrepreneur, mainly because you don’t need to worry about building a website and marketing it.
“Start small and test a product in the market before throwing more resources at the project,” she says.
“Drop shipping can be your best friend if you don’t have the space and time to store and ship out items.”
Durkin says school-aged entrepreneurs also need to learn how to systemise their business.
“I didn’t really grasp this concept whilst I was in school,” she says.
“So I was doing all the grunt work of processing orders and customer service myself during my school classes so that I had enough hours in the day to get everything done.”
“Systemising my business would have freed up my time to focus on growth.”
Smith, meanwhile, has mixed feelings about home-based online businesses.
“I think there are way too many people registering a domain and calling themselves a business person or an entrepreneur,” he says.
“Home offers such a huge safety net that it cripples a lot of people from growing, taking a risk… In saying this, online is a great way and easy way to get started. Just don’t let it limit you.”
“Multiple streams of income is the end game… Online is just one of them. I think the major thing is if you are online you need to know you’re on the world stage.”
“You’re not local – you’re competing against the guy in the US, you’re competing against the guy in India, [so] you better know your stuff, you better be hungry as hell and you better push your boundaries.”