Kidpreneur Teaches Tween Tycoons

It's Saturday afternoon, and 12-year-old Tytus Sewell has just taken delivery of his first batch of business cards. Sewell's business, Trash In-Trash Out, will bring your trash cans out to the curb and back for $4 ($2.50 for a one-way trip). Over the last two months Sewell has gotten his cards and other business-building assistance from a Northville program called Kidpreneur, which offers entrepreneurship classes for tweens.
"They're starting really young, and at this age you might not think it's very important, but it is," Sewell says. "If you get your first business off the ground it's a big accomplishment. You can take the things you've learned and apply them later in life."
Serial entrepreneur Thanh Tran is the mastermind behind Kidpreneur. Over six years of experience, he co-founded the software start-ups MentalNote and SchedFull. When his business partner moved SchedFull to San Francisco this summer, Tran chose to stay in Michigan with his family and begin passing his knowledge of the business world to a new generation of entrepreneurs.
"I guess I learned from my own mistakes more than anything," Tran says. "So I thought it would be nice to teach kids."
Tran chose to focus the program on 8- to 13-year-olds because there are already a number of entrepreneurship classes for high schoolers, such as Junior Achievement's  Be Entrepreneurial program or Oakland University's Business Beyond the Basics summer camp. He says it's better to give kids the opportunity to try - and perhaps fail - at starting a business while they're young.
"Statistically, one out of four is going to have some success," he says. "But the other three are probably going to do another [business]. The second time it's very easy, like a cookie cutter. On the third try you get to high school or college, and they're going to be very well-equipped."
Tran held an initial round of classes at Northville, Novi and Troy's public libraries in August. In September, he launched what he refers to as "Kidpreneur Phase 2": a set of nine-week classes held at Kidpreneur's new permanent home in the offices of Northville software company Digital Roots. Located in the basement of the historic WaterWheel Centre, the high-ceilinged office puts Kidpreneurs in an authentic modern start-up environment. A surfboard rests against one wall of the spacious office floor, and a picnic table provides seating in one of the conference rooms.  
"We were going to [establish a location in] Novi, but I came out here, I saw this, and Northville was just a great place," Tran says. "Parents can drop their kids off and go walk around downtown."
Since settling at Digital Roots, Tran has rolled out three main classes: app development, web design and the flagship Kidpreneur course. Tran structured the Kidpreneur class around a lean start-up business model, which aims to more efficiently create a viable product without complicated business plans or extensive funding.  
"[Tweens are] way too young to write up a business plan," Tran says. "Once you validate your idea and you're in front of an investor, then yeah, you can think about it. But even high school kids don't have the attention span for that."
Over the course of the class, kids select their business and then develop a lean canvas- a one-page analysis of the business' strategy and goals, which is the lean start-up model's answer to the traditional business plan. From there they develop business cards, marketing materials and a 30-second elevator pitch for their endeavors, ending the course with a "Demo Day" where they present their businesses to family and friends. Tran says it's an easy program to get started because almost every kid has a business idea.
"Some can be hard to accomplish, but it's great that they have the idea," Tran says. "If they have that passion we want to keep that flame going."
In Sewell's case, Trash In-Trash Out was already established (with two customers), but he wanted to improve the business. His mom, Karenbea Sewell, encouraged him to start a business last year and enrolled him in Kidpreneur this fall because, as she says, "I was done buying Nerf guns."
"If he's making his own money he has to make choices about it," Karenbea says. "If money's just handed to kids all the time, they don't understand the value of it."
Tytus seems happy with the results so far. He's learned how to rework his pricing scheme (including the addition of a senior discount), and has won a new customer since starting the class. He says Kidpreneur has "sophisticated" his business.
"They take it seriously," Tytus says. "At the end of the class they want everyone to have a customer, no matter how small the business is."
Tran says Phase 2 has drawn a modest group of ten kids, but he's planning to expand Kidpreneur's offerings yet again with "Phase 3," starting in January. January's schedule will add new classes on Java and game development, as well as expanded offerings for Kidpreneur's one-day workshops in LEGO robotics and Minecraft. Girls Develop It Detroit's Erika Carlson will also join the Kidpreneur faculty to teach iOS app development. 
Tytus says he'll likely be back in January for the web design class so he can bring Trash In-Trash Out online. Since he's started a business and learned more about how to run it, he says he's also learned the value of spending his money wisely.
"There are some things that I don't need but I want," he says. "It teaches you that with the money that you have, you have to make choices. It teaches you just a bit about living."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

All Photos by David Lewinski Photography
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