At age 5, I started my first entrepreneurial venture.
At age 10, I got in trouble at school for selling illegal goods at the lunch table.
At age 14, my first official job only lasted two weeks.
Now that I’m 11 years into my bootstrapped venture (NerdFitness.com, now with 25 full time team members), I thought I’d be fun to look back at the jobs I had as a kid, and the lessons I learned along the way:
The 13 Ways I Made Money before 18
1. “Art” Dealer (Age 5). I grew up on Cape Cod, MA, about a 5 minute drive from the beach. I don’t even remember where the idea came from, but I decided I was going to create and sell art.
So I convinced my dad to take me to Sandy Neck Beach at low tide, where I collected quahog shells, enough to fill a garbage bag. I then put all the shells into a giant Rubbermade trashcan, filled it with bleach and water, and bleached the shit out of those damn shells.
I then painted various designs in the shell, and sold them in front of my house. The shells with poorly drawn Red Sox logos were the best sellers.
I think my parents forced all of their friends to buy one, which I suppose would qualify as a neighborly shakedown.
2. Beverage Salesman (age 5-8). During hot summer days, my friends and I would sell Country Time lemonade on our street. Yellow lemonade always sold better than the pink lemonade.
We quickly learned that very few cars drove down our street, but if we parked ourselves at the end of the neighborhood, 10x the number of cars would drive by.
3. Black Market Creepy Crawler dealer (age 10). In 4th Grade, my friend Cash and I both had a Creepy Crawly machine. Imagine an easy bake oven, but to make insects:
You would take these metal molds of various bugs, fill up the molds with (probably) toxic goup, and then stick them in the Creepy Crawlers oven.
Cash and I would then bring the Crawlers to school and sell them to classmates in Mr Kelleher’s class and at the lunch table. Black scorpions were the big sellers at 50 cents.
This career was short-lived, as word got around to the teachers we were selling illegal insects, and had to shut down productions. Sorry, Mr. Kelleher!
4. Beach Plum Jelly Production and Sales (age 10?). About a 5-minute drive away from our house, there was a public orchid of beach plum trees. I went there with my mom and picked a few baskets full of beach plums.
We then spent a few days turning the plums in the beach plum jelly, canned them in mason jars, and then sold them at the Wing School Fair.
5. Successful lawn-mowing business (age 11-16). I made business cards and put them in everybody’s mailbox. Most of the time I could just push the mower or run it down the street and then walk it back home. Sometimes, if I was nice and she wasn’t busy, my mom would let me throw the mower in the back of her Jeep and she would drive me over.
Lawn-mowing memory: putting my Lit (Our Place in the Sun) CD into my Sony Discman and trying to walk as smoothly as possible so the album wouldn’t skip.
By the end of my lawn-mowing career, I saved up to buy an Intel Pocket Concert MP3 player. I think it could only hold like 30 songs…but man, having that to mow lawns was the BEST.
6. Raked leaves during the fall. (age 11-16) Same customers who had me mow their lawn. All I needed was some trashbags and a rake.
7. Shoveled snow during the winter (age 11-16). Same customers who had me mow their lawn and rake their leaves. All I needed was a shovel and a willingness to deal with frozen toes and fingers.
8. Caddying at the Ridge Club (age 13). This job wasn’t great, as I was quite small and not strong. I also managed to consistently get stuck with the old guys who tipped poorly….which was probably due to the fact that I was quite small and not strong. It DID give me a chance to play this private golf course on Tuesday afternoons without being a member, which was by far the best perk of the whole job.
9. Custom bracelet business with my friend Eric (age 13-17). There was a great yarn store at the end of Eric’s neighborhood, so we could walk down to it in the summer, buy our colors, and then go home and make our bracelets. I think I still owe Eric his half of the profits, probably $20.
10. Dishwasher (age 14) – I lasted 2 weeks as a dishwasher at Marshland Restaurant, my first official “job.” I would spend my first hour peeling potatoes, then waiting for the dishes to start rolling in. If the restaurant was slow, I would be bored. If the restaurant was busy, I would be miserable, sweaty, and get yelled at.
In both instances, I made the same amount of money, which didn’t make sense to me.
After two weeks I quit. I remember being so nervous and walking into tell my manager in person, I might have even cried because. I felt like I had failed and I was letting them down. She wasn’t surprised, told me things were fine, and wished me well. Later that day, I got a new job as a…
11. Busboy at Jillian’s Restaurant (age 14-16). 2-3 nights per week, 8-9 hours a night. This was WAY more fun. For starters, most of the waitresses were very cute and treated us busboys nicely.
More importantly, the busier the night, the more money I made thanks to tip kickbacks from the servers.
The best part: each table got a basket of fresh garlic breadsticks, and Dave (fellow busboy) and I would eat no less than 10 of these things every night.
At midnight after everything was cleaned up, the head chef (Jillian’s Dad) would make us a quick meal. Once in a great moon, he’d make us chicken parmesan. Today this day, chicken parm is still my favorite meal.
12. Burned CDs with custom playlists (age 15). This was peak Napster era. We had a decently fast CD burner. So I created an order form people could fill out with 14 of their favorite songs, and I would “procure” those songs and put them on a disc to play in their car CD player. Good thing I didn’t try to scale this business up!
13. Babysitting the neighbor’s kid next door (age 16). My nextdoor neighbors were Mario and Adrianna. They also had an awesomely overexcited dog named Penny. I only did this a few nights, as it went against Lesson #1 (see below).
The 6 Biggest Lessons Learned
I am so damn lucky that I had parents who actively encouraged, supported, and helped me with each of these ventures. I learned about marketing, money management, dependability, time management, and customer research.
Here are the 6 biggest lessons I learned as young Steve:
- Don’t trade time for money. I hated the jobs in which I was based based on the time I was in a location, having nothing to do with my efforts or the circumstances. I loved the jobs and ventures in which I made more money if I worked harder, hustled more, or came up with something more clever.
- Go where the people are. I made way more money selling lemonade at the end of the neighborhood than I did on my street in the neighborhood. I made more money selling Beach Plum Jelly at the School fair than I did on a card table in my front yard.
- Give the people what they want. I could make way more money if I created a custom Creepy Crawly Creation for somebody than a pre-made one. I could make more money if I let them pick out their bracelet colors rather than something already designed.
- Existing customers are important: If I mowed somebody’s lawn, they might make a good leaf-raking or snow shoveling customer in the next season.
- Repeat customers are clutch. Because I did a pretty good job on mowing lawns and showed up consistently, most customers had me come back every 10-14 days. Recurring revenue was really helpful for budgeting purposes.
- You make way more money when you’re in charge. When you control the supply, the means of production, and can sell directly to customers, you make significantly more money…if you can find customers!
Anybody else have clever ways they made money as a kid? Share below!