When I was nine years old, I never dreamed that the small, quarter vending machine I owned would turn me into a small business owner and a college graduate.
Wanting to inspire a sense of entrepreneurship and business in his daughter, my dad brought home a vending machine he had purchased from a friend. Setting it down in front of me in our living room, he asked—in all seriousness—“Do you want to start a business?”
I owned 15 quarter vending machines by the time I left high school, with all of the profits going toward my college fund. In addition to being a great bonding experience for my family, I cannot tell you how many skills I learned from starting and growing my very own venture that helped me gain responsibility (and looked darn good on every application I’ve ever submitted).
After graduating from the University of Portland with focuses in marketing, social media, theater, and entrepreneurship, I am thrilled to pass on my story to fledgling entrepreneurs. Since selling the last of my business at age 21 to a 10-year-old (also named Tori, because that’s just how this crazy world works), I now get to mentor her through the process.
Here are five things I learned as a kid entrepreneur that set me up for success in a workplace (and beyond).
1. Money management
You think an allowance will help kids learn about how to manage their money? Try being a business owner.
Nine-year-old me would literally roll her profits (I cannot tell you how many quarters my hands have touched over the past decade) and take them to the bank, where I had a checking and savings account in my name.
I had to research the best value product to put in my machine—and the cheapest place to buy it. I had to discover how much or how little product to give per quarter, and how this affected my profit margins. Heck, I had to know what a profit margin was! I had to understand when the correct time to expand (buy another machine) was, and when it was better to hold off.
Understanding both personal and professional finances is one of the most important life lessons to learn—the earlier the better. By having a good grasp on spending, saving, budgets, and margins, you show you’re knowledgeable and responsible with money.
2. Pitching to clients and how to cold call
Nothing’s cuter than a tween (with the assistance of her father) handing you a contract and telling you that she will clean and service a machine every month if you give her rent-free space to place it.
I had to highlight why I was valuable to the business and negotiate (mostly what candy was going to go into each slot!). I had to be fearless and confident—learning these skills at a young age saved me from stuttering through presentations later in life. For most people, cold calling is absolutely terrifying, but learning to get over this fear at a young age has grown my confidence. In fact, I recently took second place at an elevator pitch competition in Denver using my past experiences to inform my confidence.
3. The value of knowing everything about what you’re selling
Ask me anything about three-head, metal Routemaster vending machines and the candy that goes in them. I can tell you what products sell at certain locations, and which ones don’t (Hot Tamales stick together, so place them in air conditioned locations). I can tell you which way the gears turn, and how many M&Ms go in an average handful. I can tell you the best place to put a machine to get the most foot traffic.
I can also tell you the not-so-fun stuff, like which products melt easily, and which ones are especially attractive to rats (the Disgusting Rat Incident of 2011 is a story for another time). I learned all of this and more from experience—and I was able to turn that experience into profit.
Truly understanding what you’re selling displays confidence and credibility, as does truly believing in it. Comprehending the ins and outs of your product and business shines through when speaking with customers and clients.
4. The importance of excellent customer service
Your business (especially your first, and most especially if you’re a kid) doesn’t have to be anything flashy. In fact, I recommend that it shouldn’t be. Owning a dozen or so vending machines was in no way novel or innovative.
What set me apart was my level of customer service. I understood that the way to profit and be a successful business was through serving others, and keeping them satisfied. I set a standard for incredibly personal customer service, and it showed. As a salesman, my father encouraged me to give free samples and constantly check in with my customers at the front desk to see how the machine was working. This personal connection, as well as my incredible story, encouraged my customers to keep coming back.
5. How to deal with rejection
Sometimes, even my cuteness and naiveté couldn’t win them over. For whatever reason, there were times when business owners didn’t have space, already had too many vending machines in their break room, or simply didn’t take me seriously enough.
That’s going to happen. Learning that not every experience in life leads to a “Well, You Tried” trophy taught me that rejection is hard, and it’s going to happen. It’s what you chose to learn from that experience that’s more important.
Throughout the incredible experience of running my own business at a young age (more stories to come!), I learned valuable skills that have helped me in my job, school, and personal life. I know what it means to be a saver, not a spender. I believe in the value of incredible customer service. I chase after clients and opportunities and understand that sometimes things don’t go my way.
With the help of my incredible parents and customers who supported me, I grew up an entrepreneur with skills to keep for the rest of my life.
Tori Dunlap is an award-winning social media marketer and entrepreneur. Founder of victori media, helping 20-somethings live life victoriously. Obsessed with finding cheap flights, reading a good book in the bathtub, and you. Follow her on Instagram here.