Trash talk: 5 business lessons from a 10-year-old entrepreneur

trash talk

By Ryan Hanley, {grow} Community Member

In my small hometown, Thursday was recycling day. Every Wednesday night the town folk would collect all their bottles and cans and walk them out to curb in a blue recycling bin to be picked up the next morning. Dirty and cracked by years of abuse from weather and indifferent garbage collectors, the blue bins were nothing more than an eyesore in our quaint town.

Yet to me, a 10-year-old boy of humble beginnings, those blue bins represented opportunity!

My town was 30 minutes from the nearest grocery store and most people were too lazy to make that long drive to return their bottles and cans for the five cent deposit. That’s were I come in.

Our brains work differently as a child. We don’t consider what other people think. We know what we like and the majority of our day is spent thinking of ways to get it — without regard to outside judgement, criticism, or questioning.

In my child brain every single bottle and every can was a little piece of opportunity. Opportunity to NOT be the poor kid in the neighborhood. We forget as adults that opportunities are made of our own doing, they’re never given … and at 10 years old, living in a small town in Upstate New York, a couple extra dollars in my pocket meant LOTS of opportunity.

Trash talk

So every Thursday I’d wake up at 4:30 in the morning, get bundled up, and head out with a pocket full of garbage bags to collect that valuable trash.

I saw myself as industrious and entrepreneurial, however, the disapproving looks I received through the blinds of my neighbors windows told a different story.  I didn’t care. I saw opportunity at the bottom of every dirty, sticky, broken blue plastic bin.

As the weeks passed I began to see patterns. I knew who the drinkers were, I knew who put the most cans and bottles in the containers. This made my stop at a particular house more efficient.  I started to ride my bike through the neighborhoods during the day and plot out my course so I could cover more ground and optimize profits.

On a good day I was collecting three to four garbage bags full of bottles. Dragging the full plastic bags behind took too much time, so I paid a friend a dollar for his old toy wagon and my collection numbers went even higher through this supply chain innovation.  At the height of my bottle collecting career I was making 20 dollars a week, averaging 400 bottles on a single collection run.

A business is born … and lost

These days, a 10-year-old with 20 dollars in their pocket isn’t that impressive, but in 1991, I felt rich. Do you think my friends made fun of my career in garbage when I was buying them all bubble gum and baseball cards? Heck no.

A couple of them even offered to go into business with me so I franchised my bottle collection routes into a couple promising neighborhoods that I didn’t have time to reach on my own. I had started my first business.

After eight months of fat pockets and escalating revenues, my neighbors began to catch on to what I was doing. Whether from their own greed or disapproval in my line of work, the bottles started to dry up. Blue bins in front of houses I used to bank on for large stashes of bottles began to turn up empty … and just like that my first career was coming to an end.

To make matters worse, I had my first competition. An adult in town figured out my game and began collecting bottles himself. He had a car. I was scorched by superior technology.

It was time to find an adjacent market.

I had bought so many baseball cards with my bottle earnings that I was now hustling them back to friends and schoolmates for a profit. My second business was born!

Five fantastic lessons

Here are five entrepreneurial lessons you can learn from my 10-year-old self:

  1. Stay focused on the opportunity.  If I had been self-conscious and allowed the public perception of a kid walking cold streets  collecting garbage dissuade me from the opportunity, how many future opportunities would I have missed out on?
  2. Don’t buy into this “You only get one opportunity” nonsense. You get as many opportunities as you make for yourself. Opportunities are made, not given.
  3. Every opportunity isn’t sexy or popular, but success has a way of washing clean the dirt of humble beginnings.
  4. Don’t romanticize opportunity.  In my case, opportunity was waiting at the bottom of a dirty blue recycling bin.  I just had to reach down inside and take it.
  5. Know when to hold ’em.  Know when to fold ’em.  I couldn’t beat out an adult in the car but my second business was creatred from that disruption.

So that’s my story. Where is the strangest place you’ve found opportunity? Have you ever NOT taken on an opportunity because of what people would think?

ryan hanleyRyan Hanley is the Director of Marketing for the Murray Group Insurance Services, Inc. You can connect with Ryan on Google+ or visit his blog Content Warfare.


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