Plus Jeff Sandefer on key entrepreneur character traits
Life Decentralized is an ASG original column featuring self-government-minded organizations and grassroots actors who are providing services that just might enhance your life.
Here, we’re giving you the scoop on a homegrown, now nationwide, life skills-building adventure for kids: The Acton Children’s Business Fair.
“Children are really capable. Way more than you imagine they are, and they dumb it down for adults.”
For Jeff and Laura Sandefer, the couple known for founding Acton Academy – “one-room schoolhouses for the 21st century” – this is not just some feel-good notion. They’ve founded more than 250 affiliate campuses worldwide, so they have seen it countless times. Indeed, they’ve dedicated their lives to tapping into human capability.
Including by accident.
Fifteen years ago the couple’s sons, Charlie and Sam, had an idea. They told their parents, “We want to do a lemonade stand, except we want to invite our friends to have businesses.”
The little front yard market drew a couple of dozen patrons. Afterward, Jeff Sandefer says, “We totally forgot about it.”
We did it and it was over… Then we started getting calls about 6 months later with people wondering when we’re going to have another fair.
So we had a second one.
And it doubled. There were twice as many booths. People really enjoyed that, so we said we’ll have a third one.
We were at 5 or 6 years into the business fair… we had 120 booths, 200 participants and about 5,000 visitors at our house.
And so began the evolution of Sam and Charlie’s modest idea into Acton Children’s Business Fairs – over 1,100 of them currently, across 16 countries.
Kids have fun as self-managers
Fair participants develop a brand for their chosen product or service and then create a marketing strategy ahead of the one-day bonanza.
While ‘kidpreneur’ offerings often reflect popular crafts and entertainment – from bath bombs to magic tricks, the sky is the limit.
At 12 years old, Evan Christopher from California developed a passion for 3D printing and discovered he could make a pretty decent everyday tool.
“It was a very intimidating looking knife with a sharp tip and a serrated edge,” says Evan’s mom.
So he chose a classic Crocodile Dundee quote for his company’s name: “That’s not a knoife, this is a knoife.” For marketing material, Evan photoshopped the Down Under character holding one of his knives.
Children’s Business Fair-goers are often struck by witnessing kids talk with adults in a sophisticated manner as they tout their products, answer questions, and work to close sales. Seeing how they rise to the occasion and surprise even themselves is a big part of the joy in the atmosphere.
No matter how outgoing a child may be though, it’s natural to be scared of putting your talents and yourself on the line, actively engaging adults.
Jeff Sandefer takes it further:
I think every single person is going to be scared. It’s good to be scared because… we see people lose money at their businesses and cry. Business is hard.
One of the important principles for us is, be patient, start small, keep it simple.
Hopefully that’s encouraging “real talk” for any kids excited to participate in a Children’s Business Fair. If you take this on, the courage you’re showing is the same courage adults need to make things happen in life. You’re just getting a headstart.
Charlie and Sam have long maintained that the most important aspect of the fair is the experience of speaking directly, with respect, to adults – as customers.
“It’s having a voice and agency,” says Sandefer.
Similar to the learning environment at Acton Academy, the fair process prioritizes room for children to discover insights and solutions on their own. Knowledge gained through immersion tends to stick.
Every important step is meant to be tackled by the budding entrepreneurs themselves. Even funding. Kids agree to use their own funds, first for the recommended $10 entry fee (fair hosts can set this fee at their discretion) and then to secure supplies for their business. Or they can borrow the money from their parents, promising to pay it back at minimum wage. They’ll have to work off their debt if the business doesn’t turn a profit.
It’s no wonder these kids become savvy salespeople quickly – they have skin in the game.
For Evan, handling the logistics following his success proved to be the biggest challenge.
“The numbers!” he exclaims, thinking back to the trials of his first fair.
Learning accounting and making sure all of my customers got their products shipped to them, and keeping it organized, and packaging the knives up with shipping labels and all of that. If I had employees, it would’ve been a lot easier!
Clearly it wasn’t daunting enough to deter him. Evan has since participated in several fairs.
He credits “getting out of my comfort zone to look strangers in the eye and try to sell them something” for his sharp closing skills today. That initial discomfort was instantly rewarded with “seeing the looks on their faces when they held my knives.”
This year the young craftsman, also a wrestler, is trying his hand at making masculine smelling soap. “It’s impossible to intimidate your opponent when you smell like lavender.”
What makes the fairs popular?
Sandefer sees two reasons for the success of the business fairs. “I think the community aspect of it is so much fun, it draws people in, and then they’re kind of committed.”
And then there’s the adventure. Some kids love making things with their hands, some really look forward to sharing their handiwork with others, and others are simply excited to make money.
Whichever activity a child most enjoys, Sandefer calls these three key aspects of the fair process, “magic seeds”, that often plant a lifelong enthusiasm for entrepreneurship.
He’s even noticed an encouraging dynamic when it comes to particularly shy children.
They’re not going to do the first fair. But when they come and see their peers doing something and having confidence, they’re likely to sign up because they want to be with their friends. They’re either not going to get out and sell and suffer the consequences of that, or they’re going to overcome their shyness.
And we see that happen over and over again- they do overcome it.
Ella graces the video thumbnail on the Children’s Business Fair homepage. In the video, she memorably divulges that if she sells all her paintings, she’ll make $3,700 dollars. She did sell out! Not only that, she would soon land two retail contracts. Ella eventually caught the attention of a legendary designer, catapulting her into the fashion world.
At 4 1/2 years old, Mikaila Ulmer signed up for one of the first Children’s Business Fairs in Austin, Texas. While contemplating what she would sell, she was stung by bees twice in one week, making her “very, very scared” of them. To ease her anxiety, her parents encouraged her to learn all about the insects. The crash course paid dividends. The youngster developed a deep appreciation for their role in the ecosystem and decided to incorporate local honey into her grandmother’s recipe for flaxseed lemonade. Mikaila had her product—and what would eventually become a multi-million dollar company—Me and the Bees Lemonade.
While Mikaila surely would have struck fair-goers as precocious, in her signature bright yellow outfits, charmingly hawking her creation at such a young age, Sandefer is quick to note that really “all kids are precocious.”
The fair just has a way of manifesting it. A booth Sandefer saw a decade ago comes to mind: The young man was selling marshmallow guns made out of PVC pipe. Fair-goers were having a blast trying them out, and each sale netted nearly $20 in profit. The downside? The next year there were five marshmallow gun booths.
Mastering the market
Sandefer estimates about 5% of Children’s Business Fair participants travel a fair circuit of sorts, setting up shop several times a year at the one-day events. As for the majority who stay local, they typically participate more than once.
You see over the years the entrepreneurs who keep doing it get this sense of how markets work. Because competition shows up. You start to hear them say, ‘Well, slime worked last year but we can’t do slime this year because there’ll be 10 booths.’ And so it becomes a very sophisticated kind of market among the young people who participate.
A good idea this year… unless it’s protectable, will have competition the next year.
Advice for parents interested in hosting
Keep it simple. The Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) section on the Children’s Business Fair website is a great place to start.
Over the years, Sandefer has noticed there are three types of aspiring hosts.
There’s the librarian/chamber of commerce type who wants to put on a big fair, but it’s going to require 42 discussions with us about committee meetings they have to go to. So we don’t serve that customer. We can’t help you because we don’t offer a whole bunch of consultation about things.
Then there’s the entrepreneur. They’re just going to do it. They’re going to figure it out and provide 40 booths.
And then there’s the parent who can’t do any of that but wants to have a fair. …We just keep sending you to FAQ’s. You can go to Facebook and talk with Super Hosts that are on there giving advice. That’s where non-FAQ questions get answered.
Those who let themselves get bogged down with planning don’t tend to launch fairs, Sandefer has observed.
Once committed, parents often enlist friends for help, and by the second or third year, it’s not uncommon that civic connections have been made. That can go a long way toward facilitating a bigger fair.
After the event, Acton asks one question: Would you recommend this to a family like yours? Parents select a score between 0 and 10.
After 1,000 fairs, the Acton Children’s Business Fair has received a stellar 9.8 net promoter score, indicating that parents enthusiastically recommend the experience to others.
Key character traits for entrepreneurial success
Jeff Sandefer’s own entrepreneurial journey started young. At 16 he launched his first business. By 28, his personal business goals were achieved – he had “made it” and would go on to run a multi-billion dollar energy firm.
But it’s equipping young people for success, and figuring out how to build an innovative culture of excellence that really animates him. Sharing and exploring wisdom toward that purpose is the main focus of his time these days. The Economist named Sandefer one of the top 15 business school professors in the world.
We seized this opportunity to learn what he considers essential character traits for entrepreneurial success.
“You have to be brave enough to take a step, and then know that you’re going to fall down and have to pick yourself back up. Heroes don’t win; heroes get back up. So it’s the courage to try, to fall down, and to get back up.”
Tolerance for ambiguity
“Tolerance for ambiguity is something that entrepreneurs, as a character trait, have far more than people in the general population. It’s the ability to say [Sandefer points ahead], ‘See that hill? That’s where we’re going. Let’s charge.’
At the same time, in the back of your mind, you’re saying to yourself, ‘That’s probably not the right hill. I’m probably going to learn new information and we’re going to have to change course.’ But I can’t say that out loud because no one will follow me. So I have to be able to kind of take off in a generally right direction, with confidence, but not with the hubris that will charge over a cliff.
Most people can’t keep that cognitive dissonance together, and so they can’t tolerate the ambiguity of charging out in the world and being wrong.”
In the case of the Acton Children’s Business Fair, trial and error lights the hill-charger’s path to providing value to others. Belief in their own potential grows as they develop resilience in the face of unmet expectations. Each fair experience arms them with a new understanding of what will improve their game.
These kids prove they have courage. If there’s a pretext for developing tolerance for ambiguity, it’s likely early acclimation to such a journey.
As “advocates for self-government“, we appreciate the Acton Children’s Business Fair for a few key reasons of our own.
Self-actualization, or realizing one’s potential, precedes excellence. Sometimes it takes seeing the inverse to understand how much we benefit from the liberty to self-actualize. Atmospheres characterized by constraint and automaton-worthy standards for personal growth mold future adults who rely on external forces for their happiness.
On the flip side, the more self-actualization is valued, the more it affords us the privilege of a dynamic and innovative world, energized by a diversity of creators, intellects, and personalities.
Making the most out of liberty requires embracing responsibility. Learning to self-manage from a young age builds tolerance for falling down and getting back up. It’s not easy, but each mistake or disappointment in the rearview mirror clarifies the road ahead.
The energy of a free marketplace is persuasion. People have to be moved to value your offering over the next one and respectful treatment shapes their perception. Gaining this knowledge experientially at the average fair participant’s age is relatively rare.
Last but not least, in the case of aspiring fair hosts especially, the simple act of doing is significant. We can be theoretical self-governors, but nothing beats being real ones. Many parents who discover there isn’t a local fair, choose to start one. Thanks to their efforts, chances are, there probably is a fair in your community.
Fairs are typically open to children 4-16, but the age range can vary by host. Each event has its own webpage – find a fair near you here.
Thinking about hosting a fair? The webpage is incredibly simple to launch – just insert pictures and text, and you’re good to go.
To nominate an individual or organization for Life Decentralized, please email [email protected].