8 Things You Can Learn from a 13-Year-Old Entrepreneur (And Her Mom)

Last Updated Jan 4, 2011 6:09 PM EST

Three years ago, Renee Sandler got a healthy dose of righteous indignation when she was reading a Wall Street Journal article about the appallingly low number of female executives in Fortune 500 companies. "I read the article to my daughters and asked them what they thought," recalls Sandler. "And they said 'that really stinks.'" At the time, Lily Sandler and her sister, Melanie, were just 10 and 8 years old, but their mom made a promise to them: "If you ever come up with an idea for a business, I'll support you." And thus the entrepreneurial seed was planted at the Sandler home in Alpharetta, GA. Today, Sandler and her girls are the masterminds behind Blamtastic, a lip balm company with over 1,000 retail accounts. Here's how they did it and what you can learn from them:
  • Jump on inspiration. The idea for Blam was born with a slip of the tongue. Ten-year-old Lily was searching for her lip balm one day and said to Retha, "hey mom, where's my lip blam?" Renee responded immediately that "Blam" would be a great name for a lip balm company. Before long, mother and daughters were researching lip balm ingredients on the Internet and ordering wax and flavorings to cook up in the family kitchen. Takeaway: How many times have you said "what a great idea for a business," and then done nothing about it? Next time, get off your duff and do it.
  • Differentiate. "We looked at the ingredients on Lily's lip balm and it contained parabens, a synthetic preservative that can cause hormonal imbalances," says Renee. "We thought we could make it better." So the Sandlers decided to make their balm without parabens, or petroleum. They also promised never to test their product on animals, to include an SPF, and to manufacture the product in the U.S. Takeaway: Find the pain point or flaw in an existing product or service and address that. Chances are, if you're unhappy with the status quo, others are as well.
  • Hit the streets. "We melted the wax and the flavors and poured them into plastic tubes," says Lily. "And then I took them to school and asked my friends what they liked and didn't like." The verdict, Lily's and Melanie's tween friends, who became know as the "blamtastic testing posse" preferred intense flavors and vibrant colors. Their responses drove the decisions on flavors and colors, including a separate line of balm just for boys. "All the lip balm is marketed to girls - it's flowery and pink," says Lily. "We thought it was important to have some that are interesting to boys." Hence, flavors such as Brain Squeeze Sour Cherry and Radioactive Lemon Lime in addition to Strawberry Shake and O.M.G. (Oh My Grape). Takeaway: You don't need a big r&d budget to test a new product. Get your prototype in front of your target audience quickly and they'll tell you right away if you've got a hit or a bomb.
  • Find the right partners. "Many of our competitors manufacture oversees, but we wanted to stay in the U.S.," says Renee. She called a few competitors to find out where they manufactured their products. Some were actually very helpful, so Retha now pledges to help out others who are seeking start-up advice. The Sandlers tested their formula with several manufacturers and finally decided on a company in Wisconsin. When shipping the product from home became overwhelming - all three rooms in the Sandler basement were filled from floor to ceiling with boxes of lip balm - they also contracted out distribution to a Wisconsin company. Takeway: You can have the best idea in the world, but if you don't have the right business partners, it's all for naught. Take the time to assemble your team wisely.
  • Tell your story. One of Lily's favorite parts of being a young entrepreneur is going to trade shows. "We go to the Atlanta Gift Show and the New York Toy Show and I really, really, like that," she says. As a self-confident and articulate 13-year old, she stands out in the crowd and is eager to tell Blamtastic's start-up story to awe-struck adults. Lily hopes to land distribution at a large pharmacy chain in the UK after meeting and charming a representative from the company at the Toy Fair last year. Takeaway: It's the product that sells, of course, but it's your company's back-story that sparks initial interest. People want to do business with people, not companies, so make selling personal.
  • Tap your local market. How do you get national distribution for a new product? You start with the store down the block. The Sandlers visited their local Learning Express, a national chain of 140 educational toy stores. They dropped off samples and the owner agreed to test them in the store. When Blamtastic sold through, the owner recommended the company as an approved vendor for the entire chain. "Once we had them, it was easier to get others," says Renee. They're now in approximately 1,000 stores nationwide. But, says, Lily, "we're careful about where we sell out product because we don't want to lower the value of it." So for now, big chains like Wal-mart are out largely because of Blamtastic's price. Takeaway: Find a local champion for your new product or service, cultivate that relationship to the max, then use it as leverage to branch out.
  • Think big. Renee wisely nailed down trademark protection in six countries, which has allowed Blamtastic to begin exporting to Canada and Korea. Total revenues were $150,000 last year, and Retha expects that to double next year as Blamtasitc continues to go global. There's also a plan to launch a new line of sports-oriented balms this year; Lily and Melanie will come up with new colors and flavors and test them on their friends once again. Takeaway: Don't rest on your laurels. Keep innovating to keep your customers constantly engaged with your brand
  • Keep things in perspective. Lily is begging to go to the Toy Fair in Manhattan next month, but Renee is not so sure that's a good idea. "I think she has enough commitments in school," says Mom, who spends 60-80 hours a week on Blamtastic. Lily and Melanie are limited to five hours a week so that they can continue to devote the majority of their energy to school, extracurricular activities, family, and friends. In other words, just being kids. "I think it would be a really cool thing to continue on the business," says Lily. "Being an entrepreneur is really cool, but I don't know how things are going to end up." Takeaway: Business isn't everything and being an entrepreneur isn't necessarily a lifetime commitment, especially when you're just 13.
I'll be watching Blamtastic's progress this year. Do you know of some cool companies started by "kidpreneurs"? Let's hear about them.