Reading, writing, arithmetic ... and money management? Financial-literacy programs are popping up all over, to school kids on saving, spending and investing wisely.
But some eager young entrepreneurs don't need professional help — they're figuring out money matters on their own.
We found several local "biz kids" — between 8 and 18 years old — who are turning their hobbies and skills into fledgling business ventures. Some of them spend what they earn; others give most of their profits to charity.
We asked them about their money-making endeavors; to explain what they do and why, and what they've learned along the way. We've distilled their answers into mini-profiles that reveal some of the practical lessons they've learned on the job.
Parental influence varies. Charles Hulse, whose son Eli creates and sells his own iPhone apps, admits that he's mostly sitting back and watching his son make his own way. "I don't really have a lot of business experience," he says. "I'm learning from him."
School: Champlain Valley Union High School
Business venture: Distler's: Pretzels With a Kick — he makes spicy pretzel snacks.
Alec Distler loves pretzels. He grew up eating bite-sized bits of broken-up sourdough pretzels baked with spices, as per his grandmother's recipe. The secret ingredient? Cayenne pepper.
In his last year at Williston Central School, Alec had to complete the school's traditional eighth- grade challenge — a kind of capstone project. He chose to pursue entrepreneurship and started his own business, baking and packaging his grandma's spicy pretzels.
Distler says he brought an initial 50 bags of Alec's Spicy Pretzels to CVU's cafeteria thinking, I wonder how long it's going to take to sell them. The next day, Alec got a call — the school wanted another 100 bags. By that Christmas, in 2008, he was selling about 900 bags per week.
Three and a half years later, Alec's pretzels are available in local stores, including Sam Mazza's, Burlington Bay Market & Café and Shelburne Supermarket. They are, as the packages claim, "addicting."
A few things have changed as the company has grown. There are now five flavors — ranch, maple, spicy, x-tra spicy and fiery. And the baking and bagging processes have been outsourced.
The Distlers also recently changed the company name from Alec's Spicy Pretzels after coming across a similar-sounding California company. The new name, Distler's: Pretzels With a Kick, reflects the fact that the business isn't just Alec's enterprise — his mother and sisters help out a lot, too.
No one's getting rich — yet. "People think, because I have a business, I have lots of money," Alec says. Truth be told, while he draws an hourly paycheck, most of the profits are reinvested in the company, and 10 percent goes to charity.
There are some sweet perks, though. Alec gets to attend food trade shows, where he meets people from around the world. And Alec's mom, Lynn Distler, says the family has enjoyed the together-time the pretzel-making process required — often 10 to 15 hours a week in a commercial kitchen, breaking pretzels and dancing to the radio.
If your idea takes off, go with it. "I didn't really expect this to become the long-term thing that it has become," says Alec, who never guessed that his school project would turn into the family business. But the Distlers have embraced the opportunity, and it's paying off.
The business owns the business owner. Increased demand for your product is great, but if you're the owner, you have to do more work to meet the demand. Sometimes that means spending all of your free time breaking apart sourdough pretzels.
It can't just be about the money. "It takes a couple of years to start making money," Alec advises. "You've got to do something that you like to do."
Alex Morris and Isabelle Mittelstadt
- Alex Morris
Ages: Both are 10
Hometowns: Shelburne and Charlotte, respectively
Schools: Shelburne Community School and Charlotte Central School
Business venture: Hold Your Horses — they make headbands and hair ties.
When they were in kindergarten, Alex and Isabelle — and their respective moms — came up with a craft project to make a little extra cash. They started making hair ties, bows and bands for family and friends. Positive reactions led to table sales at craft fairs and relationships with local stores. Their product proved so popular that the moms, Deborah Morris and Alexis Mittelstadt, made a grown-up business out of it.
Named Alex & Isabelle after their daughters, the mom-led company makes hair ties that are more complex than the ones they created with their girls. Customers buy them on the web and at stores such Isabean, Ecco and Mirror Mirror.
Meanwhile, the girls have been doing their own thing, and selling the products at local events. Dubbed Hold Your Horses, their company uses the tagline "ponytails with a purpose" — a reminder that the two girls give a large portion of their profits to charity.
The moms felt strongly about the donation requirement, which at first was hard for Alex and Isabelle to accept. But the girls have gotten into it, says Alexis Mittelstadt. For example, they donated to Spring Hill Horse Rescue in Clarendon after getting a letter about an influx of new horses there with special needs. And when the Connor B. Turnbaugh Foundation put out a call to help families of children with cancer, the girls dyed a batch of hair ties and set up a sale.
They don't give away all of their profits, though. Isabelle is a saver and has been socking most of her earnings away. Alex is getting better about putting money away, too.
They've both used Hold Your Horses as an opportunity to polish their math skills. Deborah Morris says the girls have grown independent enough that she can sit back and read a book during a sale.
How long will they continue in business? Alex says she hopes to have a day job someday. "When I'm older, I want to work with horses," she says. "For now, this is a great job."
Don't forget the three Ls: location, location, location. It's best to set up shop in a high-traffic area. The Shelburne Supermarket is a hot spot, says Alex.
Communicating with customers is key. "It is scary to talk to somebody," says Alex, "but you kind of have to do it."
The soft sell works. Alex says being aggressive is not her style. She prefers to wait until people seem interested, then explain her products.
Giveaways = free advertising. The girls give some of their hair ties away, hoping to spur sales. Alex notes that one of her friends "helps advertise because she wears them a lot."
School: Champlain Elementary School
Business venture: She sells handmade items.
Some kids need a little encouragement to sell cookies or popcorn during school fundraisers. Not Nora Jacobsen. The outgoing 8-year-old is unafraid to knock on doors and has already mastered "the ask."
Nora makes bookmarks and finger-knitted scarves that she sells to nearby neighbors. She also does household chores, such as folding laundry for pay, and has organized classmates into fundraising collaboratives. Last year she brought together a group of schoolmates for monthly meetings and tasked them with fundraising duties that she thought would appeal to them — artfully decorating mailing envelopes, for instance.
Nora gives most of her own hard-earned money away, mainly to environmental organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund. "I feel like there are people that need it more than I do," she says. "To tell you the truth, I never really buy anything." She adds, "I know I'm going to be a saver. I can buy a house with it when I grow up."
Her mom, Kitty Bartlett, is the annual giving coordinator for the Lund Family Center. Kitty admits that dinner table talk might have influenced Nora's philanthropy. But Kitty, a self-described spendthrift, can't take credit for Nora's miserly tendencies. Her mom recalls a time when Nora spent $5 on a wind-up butterfly — only to decide she wanted to return it and get that exact $5 bill back into her pocket.
"I love her buyer's remorse," Kitty says.
Don't be shy. "I'm not exactly shy, but I can be sometimes," Nora says. "I've learned not to be."
Expect that your customers will want to buy. Nora believes in her causes and assumes that people she approaches will see the value in her products and her goal. She simply expects that they'll want to buy. "It works," quips Kitty.
Cash is king. Nora prefers to donate cash, rather than products, to her charities of choice. "I think that with some money, you can pretty much do what you need," she says. "If you give people canned food...what can they do?"
School: Mount Mansfield Union High School
Business venture: He develops animated graphics and web videos as a freelancer and is a part-time web developer at Dealer.com.
When Greg Potter was in third grade, he wanted to lend his books to his friends and keep track of who borrowed them. So he wrote a software program that managed his lending library.
Since then, he's taken on projects such as creating school websites, fixing computers, and selling visual effects templates for animated graphics. He currently sells his code segments and web video work to clients through sites such as AudioJungle and VideoHive.
A year ago, Greg's freelance portfolio helped him land a part-time job at Dealer.com, developing the web applications used by car dealers to manage their businesses. Next fall, he heads to Lehigh University to study computer science.
Greg says the thing he likes most about his job at Dealer.com is talking to other developers; it's the first time he's worked with people who understand and share his passion. He also loves to see his programming put to use at dealerships across the country. In fact, he enjoys it so much that he works at Dealer after school and on breaks during what he calls his "Dealer-cations."
He comes by his interest in technology genetically; his dad, David Potter, is the cofounder and former co-owner of South Burlington-based software company Data Innovations. David remembers how his own father pushed him toward semi-conductor engineering when he wasn't sure what he wanted to do. He doesn't want to pressure Greg in the same way. That's why he supports all of Greg's computer projects, no matter what they are. He's glad his son is experimenting before he goes off to school.
"The single thing I really try to hammer home with all the kids," says David, "is to be passionate and happy about what you do. If you really love your work, whatever it is, you will find the success you need."
Find problems and solve them. Greg says the problem-solving skills he used to write his lending library program are the ones he's still using today. Tackling that project gave him a chance to experiment and figure out what worked and what didn't. It was great training for what he's doing now.
Hard work can be fun. "Making money doing what I love is awesome," he says.
Reinvest your profits. Greg spends the money he makes on things that will help make him more money, i.e. books, computer components and software.
Even if you have a job, you should still consider college. "I want to study artificial intelligence and computing," he explains. "I don't know enough about that topic; it's beyond what I'm doing now."
Hometown: South Hero
School: Vermont Commons School
Business venture: Elis Studios — he creates iPhone apps.
Eli Hulse wasn't always a techie kid. His parents, who are both doctors, homeschooled him until eighth grade. They shielded him from media and technology; the family didn't get a television set until Eli was 10.
When he was 11, he started playing chess on his family's desktop PC and wondered how the computer came up with the moves it used against him. "I thought that was, like, really cool," he says. To satisfy his curiosity, he taught himself the Visual Basic language and wrote some primitive programs. He wanted his own computer, so that summer, he earned money to buy one by making bagels and selling them at the South Hero farmers market.
When Eli discovered the Apple App Store, he realized he could write programs for mobile devices, and get people to buy those instead. He bought a book, Starting an iPhone Application Business for Dummies, and got his parents to help him register Elis Studios with the App Store for $99. He launched his first app, a drawing application called Color Splasher, in 2010. He's added four more since then.
Eli sells all of his apps for 99 cents each. He estimates he's made about $250 so far — enough to pay the yearly fee to keep his products in the App Store. In the short term, he explains, he just wants to cover his costs; he sees his apps as an investment in his future. "I really hope it will help me when I'm trying to go to college," he says.
His mom, Molly Rideout, speculates that being homeschooled gave Eli the flexibility to pursue his interests and brought him into contact with supportive adults who encouraged him. "He tends to get really intensely involved in certain things," she observes. "It's pretty impressive."
Act the part. Eli's email signature identifies him as the CEO of Elis Studios.
Keep your personal and business finances separate. Eli notes that if you mix profits with allowance or birthday money, you'll never know how much you're making.
Not moving enough units? Try a loss leader. In February, Eli released a free version of his Color Splasher app, to stimulate downloads. It's working — more than 400 people have downloaded it since the beginning of February. He says he hopes it'll draw attention to his other offerings: "They'll say, 'Oh look, there's this other really cool app called iTap, and I could download that, too.'" Eli also makes money off of advertising that's embedded in the free version.
Know your audience. Eli's apps appeal to people like him — teenagers searching for stuff to do. His output consists of a doodling app, three games and Safety Light, which turns the iPhone into a beacon that flashes white and red; it's designed to make bikers and skateboarders visible to cars in the dark. His next project? An app that can organize and save his friends' one-liners in a database. "I don't know if it'll work or not," he admits, "but that would be really fun."
Adding It All Up
Want to start teaching your kids about money? Many public and private organizations offer free or low-cost classes and workshops. Here's a short list to help you get started.
The Jump$tart Coalition
The Jump$tart Coalition is a national nonprofit devoted to improving kids' personal financial literacy through advocacy, research and providing educational resources. The Vermont group maintains a local speakers bureau and holds an annual Common Sense Conference for educators. The 2012 conference took place in March.
The Vermont State Treasurer
The state treasurer's office is a clearinghouse of financial literacy information. In addition to an annual poster contest for kids, which concluded in March, the office partners with the VT Jump$tart Coalition to conduct personal finance workshops for teachers. Here are three of the VST's programs:
How to Raise a Money Smart Child — A Parent's Guide: This booklet, created in partnership with the Vermont Jump$tart Coalition and People's United Bank, is distributed by 57 schools throughout Vermont. There's also a related series of free parent workshops, including one on April 3 in Barre.
Reading is an Investment: This program encourages students to read about financial literacy. The more titles they log, the more likely they are to win a $250 college savings account.
Vermont Reserve Cup: This annual game-show-style tournament encourages high school students to think about economics. This year's event is May 4; teams must sign up by April 2.
Champlain College's Center for Financial Literacy
This new partnership between Champlain College, National Life Group and several financial institutions advocates for more financial education opportunities at the local, state and national levels. It offers programs for Vermont students and adults, including a public policy summit, a summer teachers institute, and a credit score workshop for students.
CVOEO Growing Money Financial Education services
The Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity's Financial Futures Program provides free education and training for low- to moderate-income Vermonters who need help organizing their finances or want to start a business. Free classes include:
Spend Smart: This three-session class is for people in households with limited income.
Keys to Credit: This two-session class goes into detail about the important and often confusing world of credit.
Creating a Financial Future: This two-session class covers IRA account basics, how to start building household savings, how to create an emergency fund, how to enhance your savings, and much more.
Vermont Higher Education Investment Plan
Administered by the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation, this site includes information about 529 college savings plans, a calculator to figure out how much you'll need, webcasts, hotlines and other resources targeting people saving for college.
Vermont Bar Association
The association offers free legal and educational resources, including a publication that describes how to protect financial resources as you grow older: Taking Charge: Plan Now for Future Financial Control.
The tools section has hands-on help: budgeting worksheets, spending diaries and checklists.
Consumer Action Handbook
This free handbook is a guide to smart shopping and includes information on understanding credit, insurance, buying a home, investing and financing college.
FDIC Money Smart Adult Education Program
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation offers free, computer-based instruction for adults, as well as classes available on CD.
National Endowment for Financial Education
This national nonprofit runs interactive websites, including:
Smart About Money: Learn about the financial aspects of major life events such as moving in with a partner, getting married, having kids and buying a home.
My Retirement Paycheck: Find information about post-retirement savings and other financial considerations.
Spendster: Make a confession or share your story about wasting money. Offers calculators that reveal how much you spend — and how often — and how much you waste.
Thrive By Five: Teaching Your Preschooler about Spending and Savings
Here you’ll find tips and activities for teaching financial literacy sponsored by the Credit Union National Association. The website also links to resources in PDF form, such as a document listing “17 Things a Five-year-old Should Know about Money.”