If you're a kid or know a kid who is or wants to be an entrepreneur, you'll get a lot of inspiration out of today's interview. If you're an adult entrepreneur, you'll be surprised the lessons a 15-year-old can teach you! We recently caught up with Jason O'Neill, entrepreneur, author, and inventor and founder of Pencil Bugs. With all the talk of "today's youth" not having drive and ambition, we're always happy to see examples of just the opposite. And we see them all the time in young entrepreneurs like Jason.
Like so many who are bitten by the entrepreneurial bug early, Jason didn't come to entrepreneurship on purpose, but once he had a taste of it, he ran with it — in a big way. Read the interview below and see how a nine-year-old turned an idea into what promises to be a lifetime of entrepreneurial adventure!
You started Pencil Bugs at the age of 9. Did you go into the venture with the intention of making a business out of it? How did it progress?
I had no intention of starting a business at nine years old. It really happened by accident and by taking one step at a time. In 2005, my mom was making a product to sell at a craft fair. I wanted to help her and I thought that if I did, she would split the money with me. She said "no" and suggested I come up with my own idea. After a few trial and errors and drawing some designs on paper, Pencil Bugs were finally born. Pencil Bugs are colorful, bug-like hand crafted pencil toppers that fit on top of a #2 pencil and come packaged with their own Certificate of Authenticity. I made a small supply for the craft fair and they all sold out quickly. After that event, I knew it was a good idea and that I should keep going with it.
What has been the biggest business challenge you've had to face, and how did you overcome it?
The biggest challenge is that I am a kid. Some people think that I am just some kid making a little craft. They don't always realize all that it takes or what goes into having a business. Probably the hardest thing is having my peers understand what I do.
Has your age ever been an advantage?
Aside from the fact, as I mentioned before, about not everyone understanding what you do, there are some legal issues that come with being a minor in business. But for the most part, being young has more advantages than disadvantages. We don't have to really worry about earning a living yet. We can take things slowly since we have lots of time to be adults. We have the opportunities to learn and experience things that most schools don't teach kids. Most people are really supportive of kids doing positive things, whatever that may be. And probably the biggest advantage of being a young entrepreneur is that there is less competition, although more and more kids are going this route. My entire business has been a learning experience for me, and everything that has happened is something that I probably wouldn't have gotten to experience if I were just going to school.
As a young entrepreneur, do you feel like you gave up any of what it means to be a kid? Would you do it all again?
Having my business has never interfered with being a normal kid, and that is a very important thing for any young entrepreneur to remember. We have a whole lifetime of work ahead of us, so even if we start a business while we are young, it's important to still be a kid first and have fun and do all the normal things kids get to do. My parents are really supportive of me and make sure I stay balanced. Because of my business though, I have had opportunities that most adults don't get to experience. I don't feel I have given up what it means to be a kid, and I am happy I got the chance to experience a whole different side of life. To answer your question of would I do it all again, my answer would have to be "I don't know" because I don't like to second guess what I have already done and I also don't set definite plans for the future. I like to keep my options and opportunities open and see what happens.
Last year, you published a book, Bitten by the Business Bug: Common Sense Tips for Business and Life from a Teen Entrepreneur. What has that experience been like? Do you plan to write other books?
Publishing a book was a big milestone for my business. It was really exciting that after the book was released I was invited to speak at bigger events. It has opened up even more doors for me. I am working on another book with an environmental theme and have a children's book about the Pencil Bugs characters that hopefully will be out next year.
You are involved with giving back to the community and could even be considered a "social entrepreneur." Why has that been a focus throughout all you've done?
I wanted to help out others that may not have the opportunities that I had. People have to remember that there will always be people less fortunate than you. Since the beginning of my business, I donated to various children's charities such as foster homes and hospitals. In addition to that, I have also had a fundraiser for the past three years for Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego, California raising money to buy teddy bears for the kids. I have had great success with that and in 2009 I raised over $5,000, which all went to buying the bears. Making money is grea,t but it's what you do with it that really counts. Even if a person can't give a lot, I always say every little bit can make a big difference in someone else's life.
What three pieces of advice do you have for young entrepreneurs interested in starting their first business?
The best advice I can give is:
- Try your ideas, because doing nothing guarantees nothing.
- Start out small, because there are lots of ways you can try a business without going into financial debt or taking big risks.
- Be willing to help others along the way, since you probably haven't gotten to the place you are all by yourself.
What are your plans for the future?
Since I just finished my first year of high school, I am looking at a lot of different opportunities. I plan to continue my Pencil Bugs business although I will probably take it in a different direction with the actual products. I also have other books that I am working on as I mentioned before, and I really like the public speaking aspect so plan to do as much of that as possible. Aside from my business plans, I still want to go to college and get a computer science degree, with a focus on video game design. Of course, all that could change since I still have three years left of high school.