By: Jim Offner
June 20, 2010
CEDAR FALLS -- A group of young entrepreneurs met last week to flesh out ideas they had for new products and services.
One was developing a plan to bring a new type of soda pop to market that offers a bit more nutritional punch than products already out on the market.
Another saw a need for a new music store in the community. Another saw a need to open a scrapbook service. Another wanted to start a lawn-mowing service.
Opening a restaurant was the dream of another.
These would-be tycoons got together at the University of Northern Iowa to develop plans for their businesses.
It's not unusual. UNI has a business incubator that has been perking along for several years.
The difference last week was, these young merchants were only elementary school students.
About 10 youngsters participated in a week-long workshop, "Be Your Own Boss: Youth Entrepreneur Camp," in UNI's Business and Community Services Building.
The camp -- a pilot program patterned after a similar program launched at the University of Iowa's Institute for Youth Entrepreneurship -- was open to students in grades 5 and 6, although one young participant had just finished third grade.
"We have a lot of students out there at this age that are interested in starting their own business," said Katherine Cota-Uyar, associate director of the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center, who conducted the first-ever workshop, with the help of several facilitators from the UNI's business program. "This is when they see lawn-mowing as an opportunity or baby-sitting or hobby-based activities they do in creating their own small businesses."
There's no reason young entrepreneurs can't be successful in such endeavors, Cota-Uyar said.
The key, she said, is that they have a goal and develop a plan around it.
"Many of them are also dreamers at this age, so they're thinking into the future, and there are no boundaries or limits," she said. "It's business, and they understand they can create a business."
By the end of the week, at least half of the group would have marketable products or services to offer and fleshed-out business plans with which to market them, Cota-Uyar added.
"To become a successful businessperson in this economy, it is important to develop entrepreneurial skills early," she said.
Andrew Haan, an incoming fifth-grader at Aplington-Parkersburg Elementary, was busy developing a plan to market a new soda pop.
He happened on that idea after having changed from his original plan -- not an unusual or unexpected occurrence in a workshop like this one, Cota-Uyar said.
"I figured, maybe, what would happen if I got my own soda going and if I made it healthier?" Haan said. "There's not as much sugar and no caffeine."
Haan said the process of transforming his dream of business success into a real product for sale was difficult.
"It kind of is," he said, adding that he would need to find a way to procure enough "seltzer water" to make enough product to make his business profitable.
He was asked what the final product would taste like.
"I have different flavorings," he said.
Greg Gerjerts, marketing research consultant with UNI, worked with Haan.
"I'm providing feedback from the consumer point of view," Gerjerts said. "We're only about halfway through our interview process. He's asking me questions about what I think of his idea and how much I'd pay for his product."
Katie Rygh, incoming sixth-grader at Southdale Elementary in Cedar Falls, was developing a scrapbooking business.
"My mom was always complaining about having too many pictures and not having enough books for them," Rygh said.
Laurie Watje, student business incubator manager at Pappajohn Center, who was helping Rygh, said her prodigy had taken the first important step toward success: seeing a need for a product and acting on it.
"If someone went to Disney World, for example, and they want to remember it but don't have a lot of time, they'd give all the pictures to Katie, and she'd put them into an album and help them capture that memory for that family," Watje said.
At the end of the program, the students showcased their finished products and services at a "business fair," Cota-Uyar said.
There will be another camp next summer, and organizers are learning how to tweak the sequence to suit their purposes, Cota-Uyar said.
"We find, because we're doing so much real development application, we need to keep our numbers lower than they do in U of I's program," she said. "So, for future camps, we're anticipating about a dozen students will be about the limit of students we can take."