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

ryan hanley

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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  • W.A.R.R.

    it’s very likely that what you were doing was illegal. The majority of waste collection agencies legally claim as property the contents of those bins in order to subsidize the cost of collecting said materials.

  • Technically you are probably correct, but generally. I hope you are not missing the bigger point of the story. A 10-year-old child isn’t going to know this is illegal, but it certainly demonstrates important lessons in entrepreneurship that can inspire. At least for me, I think that is more fruitful way to look at it than “This little boy broke the rules of a waste collection agency.” Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  • brentmkelly

    What a great story. Entrepreneual minds start young. Great lessons to be learned here.

  • @businessesgrow:disqus Thank you for allowing me to share this story with your community. Truth be told, I’ve never actually shared it in public before… It’s funny how life works, at 10 I was entrepreneur, at 23 I was brainwashed into believing that your life was defined by the size of the company you work for and thus I became a corporate stooge. Now at 32, I fight and scratch and pull everyday to reclaim the entrepreneurial spirit that burns deep inside me… buried from years of “Keepin’ up with the Joneses.”

    Thank you.

    Hanley

  • Miguel Salcido

    Ryan, glad to hear that you’ve regained your spirit. I was VERY much like you when I was a kid. I was and always have been extremely entrepreneurial. My parents often thought I was stealing when I’d come home with candy and baseball cards and stuff. But it was from working and saving, I was a very good saver at 9 yrs old believe it or not.

    And at 32, its definitely not too late for you. Chances are you gained valuable insights and experiences working those corporate jobs. Believe me, that experience will come in handy.

  • I love a great bootstrapping story, Ryan and Mark! Thanks for sharing this!

    I just published a post on our website about Liz Stewart, owner of Lush Beads, who was laid off from her high-income tech career. Liz had been making jewelry for a couple of years to relieve stress, and while she was job-hunting, she started selling her jewelry “on the side.” Then she got a couple of part-time jobs in beading shops, where she discovered she loved retail. At some point, Liz knew she’d never go back to the tech industry.

    Now she rents space in a studio/shop in a Lowell, Massachusetts mill, teaching beading classes, selling beading supplies, and selling her own finished pieces. Such a cool story!

  • @michellequillin:disqus that is a fantastic story! Thanks for sharing.

  • “Opportunities are made, not given.” I can’t express how much I love this quote. I feel like too many people overlook this idea when they’re looking for opportunities in life.

    Great, inspiring story. Thanks for sharing!

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  • Thank you @twitter-466794122:disqus… We all fall into this trap, “Why not me?” We’re never chosen.

    Hanley

  • jennifer lehner

    . I was scorched by superior technology.” Ha! Love it!

  • I LOVED this Ryan! Heart warming and a perfect example that it’s usually something that we are born with!

  • RhondaHurwitz

    From disruption, opportunity. LOVE.

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  • That’s just an amazing story, Ryan, and like @twitter-466794122:disqus, I too love #2. Also that you called it “nonsense.” 😉 Thank you for this!

  • Marc Zazeela

    Ryan,

    The moxie and imaginations of kids are unrivaled by adults. We tend to overthink things until we have thought so long and hard that the opportunity has evaporated.

    Adults need to think more like kids. Get rid of the ego. Get rid of preconceptions. Get rid of doubts.

    Cheers,

    Marc

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  • Love your five lessons! I’ve already passed them along to a fellow entrepreneur as a reminder, to roll with our goals. Great post.

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  • Thanks Ameena… The way we view the world, Obstacle versus Opportunity plays such a huge role in our success in life.

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