By John O'Connor

Entrepreneurship starts early. For me, it started on 221 Curtis Street in Ohio.

Failed attempts at selling salt, painted rocks and rough-looking pottery didn’t really get the backing from neighbors and passers-by as I expected. But that summer, I found an old wooden crate from the Chrysler dealership a block away. With my brother Chris, I dragged it down our street, and with a little paint, sugar, garden hose water and some help from mom, we started a lemonade stand. With an Ohio drought and a long July, we must have made $200, at 10 cents at a time. (Eat your heart out, Girl Scout Cookie purveyors in front of busy grocery stores.) Fast forward to today, and my brother leads risk management in the insurance business out of New York and I run my own enterprise.

Why do I bring all of this up now?

Those entrepreneurship lessons early in life didn’t change too much for either of us, both corporately and in small business. Lessons learned then still apply to both of us today.

Customize Your Approach For The Client

We separated ourselves from our imitators down the block and around the corner by customizing our drinks. In some ways, we acted like bartenders for our repeat clients. On some days, we added an oatmeal cookie from a batch our mom made, and yes, we charged a bit more for the add-on. On Saturdays, we added food coloring. We needed our well-hydrated clients to come back, so we found new twists on the old products. We named some of our drinks and would personalize them for each person if they wanted to stray from the norm.

The simple lesson: See each client as a unique person in a unique circumstance, and treat them that way. This simple notion allows my small business today to thrive and build relationships that last.


Metrics And Collaboration Matter

My brothers’ skills in numbers at an early age bordered on genius to me. He created a rough chart on where our clients were coming from, what they ordered previously, and he asked them why they came back. To this day, he doesn’t consider himself a marketer, but his metric-focused marketing seems like the same things I talk about with my digital marketing-oriented clients. My brother built a map with a Bic pen and lined notebook paper from our school, roughly plotting out where each customer lived. Later, he asked my mom to give us colored paper, and we would write notes to each client with a coupon. We rode our Schwinn bikes and stuffed them in our returning customers’ front doors. They said things like: “Thanks for coming by. Come back. Here’s a ticket.”

Our customers kept coming back, amused by our budding business seriousness.

The simple lesson: Even though I initially fought my brother’s attention to detail to our customers and more, I couldn’t help but see its effectiveness as our return drinkers came back. We created a crude direct marketing program and developed strong customer retention.


There’s Serendipity You Don’t See

In all truth, that summer seemed like the last happy summer of our young lives. Later that year, my mom and dad hired lawyers and started their divorce. My brother chose to live with my mom who had decided to leave Ohio and go back to Iowa. The serendipity of our lemonade stand? It served as an oasis before the storm for us, and it was a memory we thought about every year after that, even though we ended up living 500 miles apart.

The simple lesson: Looking at an entrepreneurial venture as a bonding process — a journey, not just a destination —helps in creating bonds and lessons that can last a career and certainly a lifetime.

Any time I coach a client to start a business, develop his/her leadership skills or venture into another career option, I know I use each one of these lessons. Business can get very complicated, but the basics of business, follow-up, collaboration, and the journey, don’t have to be that different from your first ventures. Think back. Trial those lessons learned and compare them to today. Fundamentals matter, and your strengths as a young person can be applied today. You may even find out that what you gain through struggling today with key people in your life will matter more in the future.

Category: Editorial