How to Raise a Business Owner

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On Labor Day weekend my husband and I – the only small-business owners at a gathering of family and friends – were asked repeatedly how our business was doing. We were honest and said that it’s a very difficult environment for small business right now and that we feel fortunate to be hanging in there.

One nameless relation stopped clearing the dishes and piped up with the following statement: “If it doesn’t work out, you two can just go out and get jobs like the rest of us.”

There’s one in every crowd, isn’t there?

Yet another relative at a different holiday gathering said more or less the opposite: “At least you guys are out there trying to do something, rather than expecting someone to hand you a paycheck every two weeks.”

As a small-business owner, I’ve become accustomed to encountering both points of view. But it made me wonder how I instill the latter mindset – that you can make your own way in the world and don’t necessarily need to rely on someone else to provide you with an income – in my own children.

People love to argue about whether entrepreneurs are born or made, with many feeling that success in small business is somehow genetic. My husband has five siblings. An entrepreneur raised all six kids, yet only one became a small-business owner. I had no exposure to business growing up, yet here I am on my second venture. Rather than calling it genetics, I think it has more to do with children of entrepreneurs being the beneficiaries of an early education in business.

My 6-year-old is starting to figure out how the world works, and where we all fit in. He knows that his mom and dad run a business together, but I can see that it doesn’t always add up in his mind. Other parents have jobs. They work for somebody, or sometimes one parent works and the other stays home. He doesn’t meet many kids with parents like his. I guess we’re not the norm, which is something children pick up on at a young age.

As my children get older and begin their elementary school education, I keep an eye out for where business literacy emerges as part of the curriculum. So far, I don’t see much, although the basics of personal finance – bills and coinage, and how to count them – begins in kindergarten.

In fact, I’m not sure that we have a real grooming system for raising entrepreneurs and business owners in this country. The ethos is built into our culture – you can do anything with hard work – but it seems business education doesn’t begin in earnest until you choose a major in college. The “land of opportunity” and the “American dream” are synonymous with the entrepreneurial spirit. Yet if you were to stop people on the street and ask them how to start a business, I’ll bet the common response would be something like a) get a friend or relative to loan you some money, and b) try it, see what happens and hope for the best. It’s no wonder that entrepreneurs are perceived as risk-takers and failure rates for start-ups are so dismal.

Certainly a business degree is no guarantee of success. Which brings me back to early education at home. Here are a few qualities that I try to instill in my kids – for success in both life and entrepreneurship:

  • Ability to solve problems creatively.
  • Desire to learn and expand knowledge.
  • Ability to analyze a situation and make good decisions.
  • Self-motivation and belief in your own abilities.
  • Persistence, tenacity and resilience.

I’m always listening for potential opportunities to illustrate general business principles and create awareness of the business behind everyday things. For example, we drove by a construction site the other day. My youngest pointed out the window at an excavator and said, “I want to drive one of those some day.”

“Maybe some day you’ll own a business that helps people build things,” I replied. There was silence in the back seat. I figured what I said either made no sense whatsoever, or perhaps got him thinking about the world in a different way – if only for a moment.

Barbara Taylor is co-owner of a business brokerage, Synergy Business Services, in Bentonville, Ark.

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