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Business lessons I learned from my childhood enterprises

Brian Scudamore is founder and CEO of O2E Brands Inc.

As a kid, I used to help out at my grandparents' army surplus store in San Francisco. They showed me the ropes of running a business, and I saw firsthand the freedom they had from working for themselves. It was my first taste of entrepreneurship – and I was hooked.

We moved several times when I was growing up, but my entrepreneurial drive always came with me. I have literally spent my entire life testing out new businesses, from selling contraband candy and rare hockey cards to building four home service brands. I've learned a lot along the way, but when I hit a roadblock, I still fall back on those early lessons.

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Exploring entrepreneurship at an early age sets the foundation for success later in life. Here are five things I learned from my fledgling kid enterprises – and why all kids should be encouraged to give business a shot.

1. Customer service is king

My grandparents taught me everything about the inner workings of a business – from behind the scenes tracking inventory, to the front lines on the till. (Fun fact: when I was 13, I sold a leather jacket to a member of the band D.O.A.! Does anyone remember them?)

Above all, they showed me the importance of customer service. Treating people right was the backbone of their business and even spared them from the break-ins that neighbouring shops suffered. Decades later, at my own company, we've made people our number one priority. From customers to employees, our motto is "It's All About People" – and I owe that to my grandparents.

2. Always stay one step ahead of the competition

When I was 11, a kid across the street started a neighbourhood car wash for $2 a pop. I realized he'd locked in on an awesome opportunity, so naturally, I started my own – and charged 25 cents less.

It turned into a pricing showdown: he'd drop another quarter and I'd go down 50 cents. When I reached the low price of 65 cents, he couldn't bring himself to match it. I maintained my upper hand, providing the best bang for your buck in town.

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Today, we stay ahead of the competition through our commitment to professionalism, by anticipating what customers want, and by leveraging new technology that our industries haven't tried before. It's about predicting the next trend and trying new things to ensure you stand out from the pack.

3. Don't be afraid to take risks

In Grade 8, I skipped half of my classes and (unsurprisingly) flunked out. As a consequence, my parents shipped me off to boarding school – but they didn't expect me to start running a bootleg candy shop from my dorm room.

To me, the idea was obvious: kids had to walk more than half an hour to get to the nearest store, so I figured I'd bring the candy to them. I approached the store owner and explained my plan, asking for a discount if I bought in bulk. He agreed, and I headed back to school with a full stock of goodies for my classmates. My store was a hit and for the next few months, I made a killing.

Unfortunately, my days as a candy man were short-lived; turns out it's frowned upon to sling licorice for a profit at school. But I learned that success often comes from taking risks (and breaking some rules).

4. Create your own publicity

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In the case of my car wash, I knew my price tag wasn't enough to tip the scales my way for long (we were dealing with a difference in pennies and most adults paid us the full $2 anyway). I had to do something to make customers choose my business over my rival's.

Figuring it was time to start an aggressive ad campaign, I made flashy signs from old plywood, and hired two neighbourhood girls to wave them around. Thanks to this tactic, it wasn't long before we'd taken over the entire street with lines nine cars deep. By taking marketing into our own hands, we improved our brand awareness and grew our business.

5. Be patient

In university, I invested my entire life savings (and my girlfriend's) in incredibly rare, French Upper Deck hockey cards. I had heard how popular they were and how much they were worth, and saw a lucrative opportunity. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Minnesota North Stars had just gone head-to-head for the Stanley Cup, so I bought a couple of cases and put classified ads in the Pittsburgh and Minnesota newspapers.

And … nothing happened. No one called. We'd used all our money and we were stuck with boxes and boxes of product. Just when we were really starting to panic, the phone finally rang. Much to my surprise, my first customer didn't just want a single card or 10 – he wanted an entire case. In one sale, I'd paid back the initial investment. In the end, I made more than $60,000.

In any business, there will always be times when you want to give up. But all too often, people quit right when they're on the verge of achieving their goal. My card business taught me to be patient and push through – because if you believe in yourself and your vision, anything is possible.

Executives, educators and human resources experts contribute to the ongoing Leadership Lab series.

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