Norm Goldstein, 65, knows a future business mogul when he sees one. His company, By Kids For Kids, was founded in 2003 on the idea of giving young children a chance to turn their ideas into businesses -- and hopefully set them on a path to entrepreneurship.
He came up with the idea after his then-14-year-old daughter, Cassidy, created the Crayon Holder -- a gadget designed to hold broken crayons, which ended up being sold in stores around the country, including Walmart.
Cassidy grew up -- she's now 24 and a designer for a jewelry firm -- but Goldstein didn't want to give up the experience he had shared with his daughter, of taking a child's idea and helping her turn it into a real product on store shelves. Today, his company partners with others like Staples and Toys R Us and organizes competitions that children can enter with their ideas (Warren Buffet's online animated series for kids, Secret Millionaire's Club is offering the latest contest, which just opened to the public Oct. 20). Most of the inventions that come out of the competitions don't necessarily go on to be huge sellers, but every once in a while, By Kids For Kids finds some kid who is able to get a product in stores, like the Flip-Itz, a novelty collectable toy that has been sold in over 1,500 independent gift shops and toy chains. And the experience hopefully helps fan the flames of their entrepreneurial sparks.
With a growing number of kids already identifying entrepreneurship as their dream career path -- even if they don't yet know all the fundamentals of inventing a product or starting a business -- some parents are taking notice too. So what does it take to help your kid become the next Steve Jobs? Here are five tips Goldstein suggests.
1. Remember, it takes time and money to become an inventor. By Kids For Kids competitions may not have any entry fees, and if a kid's idea reaches the patent stage, Goldstein's company takes care of those costs. But if you're on your own and you're serious about trying to turn your child's idea into a product, you can expect to shell out real-world money for a prototype.
It's easier to ballpark patent costs. "A patent typically costs $6,000 to $10,000," Goldstein says. "The process can take anywhere from a little over two years to as long as three and a half years. With all the cutbacks in the government, the examiners are backlogged, and getting a patent approved takes significantly longer than one might expect. In many cases, the patents that are submitted are greatly scrutinized and often rejected for a variety of reasons, and sometimes you'll need to resubmit and make adjustments to the claims."
And odds are good that your kid's incredible idea will be rejected. Happens to grownups, too. Goldstein estimates that 90 percent of the patents filed are rejected because something similar has already been filed at the patent office.
2. They Need Your Help. Your kid probably can't get an invention to market without your help. Goldstein estimates that his organization has reviewed over 100,000 children's submissions, "and almost 100 percent of the time, there's some degree of parental involvement. Usually, the ideation is the child's, but in the facilitation of exploring the marketing and protecting the idea, that's where the rubber meets the road." In other words, if you think your child has an incredible idea for a product and you want him or her to pursue it, plan to be very involved in the process.
3. Be willing to step out of the way. Yes, your child needs your time and your money, but you don't want to go too far. If your child runs into an obstacle preventing him or her from finishing his or her product, you might spot the solution right away, but don't just tell your child how to fix their invention. Not yet.
Like helping with homework, it's better if you let them try to figure out the problem on their own, "or try to be clever enough where you can guide them to the answer without letting them see what you're doing," Goldstein suggests. "Kids, at a certain age, don't want to be told what to do. They want to be empowered to explore this thing called life." And if you don't give them a chance to do that with their venture, you could muck everything up.
4. Don't be a grownup buzzkill. In the idea stage, especially, and in putting together a prototype, it doesn't hurt to let your kid's neurons fire up and see where his or her mind goes. Goldstein recalls that his daughter created her crayon holders by rummaging through the kitchen trash can and pulling out some plastic tubes that had been on some roses he had given his wife. The tubes, which were the same thickness as the rose stem, were also the same thickness as the crayons, Jessica noticed, and if she put her broken crayons into the rose stem holders, suddenly the thin, broken crayon was thicker and able to be used. A grownup probably wouldn't have thought to pick through trash in search of a solution.
"Kids are new to the world, with no preconceived notions of what can be done," Goldstein says. "Everything and anything is possible, and as long as something isn't dangerous or harmful, you should encourage them to think outside of what seems possible."
5. Push them to be problem-solvers, not inventors. "There are only a few Bill Gateses and Steve Jobses in the world," Goldstein says. "Your children have more to gain by participating in and learning the inventor's problem-solving skills rather than trying to come up with an invention that the world will embrace. Our organization is not about finding the home runs. It's all about the bunts and singles, because not everybody is going to rise to the top, but your kids can be successful if they learn to be problem-solvers, because that's what an inventor is. They find solutions to our problems. The win isn't getting a kid to come up with the next hula hoop or pet rock -- the win is getting a kid to become a problem-solver, so they can always survive and thrive in the world. And if you can teach your kids those skills, some of them will come up with the greatest thing since sliced bread, while others will learn the ability and have the resources to solve everyday problems -- and that, in our world, is what being a success is all about."