As printed in the New York Times on January 25, 2007 because the New York Times link requires registration:
Barons Before Bedtime
By PENELOPE GREEN
ONE of Bradley Ziegler's favorite days is the day after Christmas, when the bargain bins at Toys "R" Us and Wal-Mart are filled with marked-down DVDs and GameCube games. As he has done for the past two years, Bradley will pick up an armful of $3.99 games and movies and then auction them for up to 10 times that on eBay to regular customers from Kentucky to Cyprus.
His computer is off by 9:30 each night (a house rule), but he likes the fact that he can make $50 or more before breakfast the next morning. Because on eBay, nobody knows you're 15 (or cares if you're asleep).
They call him Donald at the post office in his town in Bergen County, N.J., which Bradley thinks is pretty cool, though his mother, Susan Boyd, a first-grade teacher, would like her son to have a more philanthropic entrepreneurial hero.
While she is proud of him for intuitively discovering "what others have to take courses to learn," she said, "I wish the post office lady called him Mr. Gates instead of Donald."
For some time now, teenagers have been looking to entrepreneurs as pop icons — whether Gates or Trump — as much as they have to rock stars and athletes. Having your own business has become very cool; having your own business before your 20th birthday indescribably so.
Sniffing a ripe market, book publishers and self-help authors are making Tony Robbins-style wealth and investment guides for under-age readers. Books like "The Motley Fool Investment Guide for Teens: Eight Steps to Having More Money Than Your Parents Ever Dreamed Of" and "Rich Dad, Poor Dad for Teens: The Secrets About Money That You Don't Learn in School" put a capitalist spin on the old boomer mantra: never trust anyone over 30.
Since the rise and fall and rise again of the new economy, the face of the American dream has gotten younger, richer — and more homebound. With the news full of 20-somethings who are making millions of dollars with ideas hatched on their laptops and in their dorm rooms (as the founders of YouTube, MySpace and Facebook have done), more and more teenagers are hoping to become the C.E.O.'s of their own companies, without ever leaving their bedrooms.
"These kids want to make money," said Atoosa Rubenstein, 35, the former editor in chief of CosmoGirl, which she founded when she was 26, and Seventeen magazine. "They are being marketed to all the time, and they get what marketing is all about. Now it's social currency to have your own business. It used to be your wardrobe or your sport. Now your own business makes a statement about you and your interests. It almost breaks down into cliques: the future C.E.O. types, the fashionistas making T-shirts, the Webby guys tutoring adults on the computer or selling games on eBay."
Peter Liebenson, a 17-year-old senior at the Dalton School in Manhattan, said he hopes the name of his business, Pete's Caramels, will one day be as famous as, say, Famous Amos. But what is also true is that Peter's enterprise — homemade caramels sold online ( petescaramels.com) — is appealing to him largely because it's a solo enterprise. "I suppose in a general way I like to do my own thing," he said. "Instead of football, I play boccie. Instead of the piano, I play the theremin." He said Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, was an inspiring figure. "Amazon's marketing is interesting to me," he explained.
His mother, Stacey Selden, is a New York City judge, and his father, Jeff Liebenson, is an entertainment lawyer. They are of an age and culture to remember when musicians like Robert Plant (or even Kurt Cobain) were the heroes of teenage boys. And they bemusedly admire Peter's company, which he started last summer. "How did he know how?" his mother wondered.
"I thought maybe he'd do an internship," Mr. Liebenson said, "but Peter had this very clear idea." He took a two-day course in Web design at the School of Visual Arts, where he learned all sorts of nifty things (like how to make a photo of a caramel wiggle on a Web page), sent a batch of caramels to his favorite candy blog, candyaddict.com, garnering a glowing testimonial ("I predict sweet success for you!") as well as a link to his site — and a business was born.
With an ear for buzz phrases like "no trans fats," Peter promises customers a product that is both healthy and delicious. Delivery may take up to a month (homework and college applications come first), but you can request samples for $1 and pay online through PayPal. If you send Peter a testimonial, he will refund your dollar.
With an Internet storefront, reviews on blogs and testimonials from customers, Peter has more orders than he can keep up with (from 22 states and as far away as the Netherlands, he said). Expenses are low (he pays $4 a month for Web hosting and his advertising came free). He estimates a total profit to date of about $45, after allowing for operating costs (a domain name, postage, packaging) and supplies (a candy thermometer, butter, cream, sugar and mixing spoons), a figure that took some time to arrive at (he sifted through receipts the other night), suggesting that Peter's impulses are more creative than acquisitive.
Not all teenage entrepreneurs are so process-oriented. For many, the profit is the turn-on. Even parents can be tickled, if slightly abashed, by their child's moneymaking skills. One Palm Beach mother of a student at a New England boarding school reported buying cases of Red Bull at a Costco one parents' weekend, which her son sold for triple the cost to his dorm mates. "They like to ski on the stuff," she said, begging anonymity. "I also sent him 20 or so used movies which he rents from his room."
Boarding schools, of course, are fertile environments for under-age business types; the market is quite literally captive and therefore hungry for all manner of goods. In decades past you could spot the future captains of industry by their triple beam scales and twitching fingers. Now the drug dealers have been trumped by more legal monopolists. Two years ago Matt Swift was a junior at the Salisbury School for boys in Salisbury, Conn. He wasn't that athletic, he said, and had a lot of free time. He had always been entrepreneurial, selling water to his ski teammates on their Friday bus trips in grade school and looking up to his "life mentor," Sheridan Snyder, a biotech entrepreneur (and his mother's partner).
Mr. Swift, now a freshman at Georgetown University, described his business plan: "We were in the middle of nowhere and the food was terrible and we thought, what's the best market for a boys' school?"
Food and dates were the obvious answers, and food was the most viable option, he said. With the blessing of the headmaster, Chisholm S. Chandler, he and two friends, Nick Logothetis and Mike Katzenberg, created a snack shop in a basement classroom. Their initial investment was $5,000 each (these are fortunate boys), and they paid a teacher $50 every Saturday to drive them to a Costco and a Sam's Club for supplies.
Open for only 45 minutes after study hall each night, the place was an instant hot spot; beef jerky was their best seller. By Christmas they had a profit of $30,000, and began to funnel all of it into charities: Katrina and tsunami relief, computers and tutoring for a retirement home nearby, taking advantage of matching grants given by the Ford Foundation.
"We got a lot of flack in the beginning from teachers, so the charitable component was key," Mr. Swift said. "Most people weren't comfortable with the idea of our profiting off our fellow students. Our grades did slip in the beginning, mine from A's to C's, but when Mr. Chandler told us we'd lose the shop, we brought them up again. It was a powerful incentive."
The next year the school offered the boys the restaurant concession in a new student center, and Sarum's Snacks, as it was called, stepped onto a broader, though no less successful, stage. Last year they sold their assets to the school, Mr. Swift said, and deputized two seniors to take their place.
The headmaster, Mr. Chandler, said the other day that there might have been "some raised eyebrows that we were allowing kids into uncharted territory, but part of education is trying something new." He continued, "If it failed, it would have been just as successful because they still would have learned something."
That the wealth-building gurus are reaching out to children may make some people squirm, but it is not surprising. "Our culture is focused on doing well, on having more goods than anyone else," said Dr. Richard Gallagher, director of the Parenting Institute at the New York University Child Study Center. "There is this dream of life that's being presented."
Idealistic and impressionable, teenagers, he suggests, are almost too easy a mark. Still, he went on to say, "Giving kids some financial savvy can have some positive value," whether it comes from a book or a home-cooked business, if the parents stay in charge. "You'd want to know how much money is being made," he said, "and make decisions about what kind of freedom his 'luxury' money allows him to have." Money, of course, is another family value.
"If you're all watching 'My Super Sweet 16,' that's one kind of value," he said, referring to MTV's ode to wretched teenage excess. "But maybe you want to be talking about Bill Gates."
The most successful of the half-dozen or so money manuals out now is "Rich Dad, Poor Dad for Teens," with 50,000 copies sold since its publication in 2004, according to Nielsen BookScan. (Though many young entrepreneurs seem more interested in listening to podcasts from Ad Age or flipping through Forbes magazine.)
"Rich Dad, Poor Dad for Teens" is a scion of the franchise created by Robert T. Kiyosaki and Sharon L. Lechter, whose first book, "Rich Dad, Poor Dad," has been on the New York Times best-seller list for six years. That book tells a compelling and cult-creepy tale of financial success learned by Mr. Kiyosaki at the knees of Rich Dad, a neighbor, who encouraged him to play Monopoly instead of doing his homework while his biological father, a k a Poor Dad, wrung his hands.
The essential message is that higher education can saddle you with a lot of debt and that a salaried job is a losing situation, given the current state of corporate malfeasance and the cost of health care. The book is a manifesto for budding solo entrepreneurs of all ages. "Money is a life skill," Mr. Kiyosaki said. "It should be taught."
Responding to the lack of financial education in high schools and grade schools — a personal b�te noire of his — Mr. Kiyosaki's company created a series of financial games called Cashflow. Players win when they get out of the rat race (salaried jobs) by amassing passive income (investments in real estate or the stock market).
Entire families — so-called Rich Families — now form game-playing and networking communities, getting together to play Cashflow on Friday nights. "The game opens their eyes," said Amanda McCauley, whose two daughters, Kelsey, 13, and Karly, 11, are host to Cashflow games in Phoenix and deftly work "credit card debt" and "rat race" into conversations. "They learn that money doesn't just come out of the A.T.M. machine."
The other day Kelsey described her continuing search for a site to deploy a gumball machine and accrue passive income. "I baby-sit right now," she said, "but I have to be there to actually earn the money."
Bradley, the eBay maven, has discovered his own source of passive income: books in his younger brother Justin's room. "If I get into a selling mood," he said, "I will look around the whole house for things to sell. All over my brother's room there are books that we have never read just lying around."
He has put Justin's "Hardy Boys" books on eBay three times, he said. And each time Justin goes online and takes them off.