How My 13-Year-Old Son Taught Me to Be a Better Entrepreneur

  • September 26, 2017
  • by:Serhat Pala

This article originally appeared on Inc.

You’re never too young or too old to learn or teach. I was always excited at the prospect of teaching my two sons about entrepreneurship. With several years of entrepreneurial experience, I thought I was in a good position to mentor them.

And then my 13-year-old went and broke a world record while organizing his fellow students to help the homeless, and I thought maybe I should be the one taking notes.

Breaking a record.

My son Kenan Pala, who was 12 at the time, organized his fellow school students in October of 2016 to break the Guinness World Record for Largest Cardboard Box Mosaic.

The idea came to him while we observed a group of concerned citizens trying to rescue an injured seal in San Diego. Kenan was moved by the group’s compassion, and wondered if he could motivate people to help their fellow humans.

I suggested he start a food drive at his school. He gave me a knowing smile and said he had something a little different in mind.

Kenan led his fellow students to gather enough red Quaker Puffed Rice boxes and blue Quaker Puffed Wheat boxes to create a giant mosaic depicting a heart on a blue background measuring 2,213.22 square feet, which at the time was a Guinness World Record for a cardboard box mosaic.

The lesson: Don’t just set goals, truly motivate people.

Having goals is important, but if you really want people to get excited, you have to find a way to motivate them. My son knew that if he asked his peers to donate food, their response would probably be lukewarm at best. But being a part of recorded history? That’s something worth getting excited over.

If you want your company to be great, you’ll need something better than just beating some arbitrary sales number.

Symbolizing success.

Making a heart from rectangular boxes isn’t easy. My son and wife pored over the plans for hours. I suggested he switch it from a heart to something else that was easier to create. He told me the heart was necessary–it was a symbol of love and caring, and the entire project was meant to show caring for the homeless.

The lesson: Symbolism matters.

Forget corporate logos, in business, the important symbols are things like recognition awards for staff or cards that celebrate people’s birthdays or special anniversaries. These things matter to people.

Communicating consistency.

The world record event took about a year of planning. Kenan organized a crew to help, and sent them weekly emails to keep everyone updated.

There were quiet periods, like when they waited for the world record application to get approved and during the summer months when team members were away. I suggested he might skip the emails on some of these quieter weeks, but he kept sending them every Sunday night, saying he didn’t want his team getting complacent.

The lesson: Consistent communication matters, even when your message is limited.

Communication is how we create momentum and use symbolism. If we allow ourselves to get lazy because we don’t have much to say, it can sputter to a halt. You should keep your communications consistent so people know what to expect and when to expect it.

When you get inconsistent with your communication, people feel left in the dark.

Eschewing comfort.

Everything my son did for this project was beyond his comfort zone, including:

  • Giving speeches.
  • Learning project management.
  • Conducting TV and radio interviews.
  • Asking for help from people and companies he didn’t know.
  • Talking to his friends about the project instead of whatever they usually talk about.
  • Asking his school principal for use of the gymnasium for the project.
  • Convincing my wife and I to spend money on the project.
  • Spending his own money on the project.

All of these were things he was not comfortable doing, yet he did them anyway. When I asked if he wanted help with any of it, he replied that he’d rather learn to do it himself so he could get the experience.

The lesson: You should never be comfortable when you’re trying to change the world.

Being comfortable isn’t really part of the deal, especially for entrepreneurs. Often, feeling comfortable is how we know it’s time to start something new.

For his efforts, Kenan was rewarded with a wealth of experience, a sense of accomplishment, and the knowledge that he was able to help both his peers and people who struggle with hunger on a daily basis.

Oh, and he also received a shiny medal to hang around his neck: a Prudential Spirit of Community Award for being one of the top five middle school volunteers in the entire country.

As for me, I learned you’re never too young or too old to learn how to be a better entrepreneur.

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