Jason: I got my start in business at a young age. I became really interested in business and entrepreneurship and the idea of running my own business at a young age, I want to say I was around 8 years old. My fascination with technology and computers also took place around this time, it was in the mid-1990s and there weren’t a lot of options for computer support where I’m from. Technology and computers just came natural to me, at the time they were a lot more complex than they are now in terms of trouble-shooting and actual configuration so I think that made me more fascinated with them and how they work. I decided to start my own business in the 7th grade selling business cards to my teachers at my middle school. It didn’t really have anything to do with computers other than I used one to create and design the cards on. This was back when having a color printer was a BIG deal, not many people even had computers in their homes in the mid-1990s. It was about this time that I realized that I was good at operating and troubleshooting computers, as I was helping many classmates and teachers with computers in our classroom. In 1999, while in 8th grade I started J-TEK, which of course has transformed a great deal since then. I used to only build custom computers for people in the community, parents of my friends, etc but then in high school when that no longer became profitable as Dell and Gateway became big players in that market, I shifted my focus to computer consulting, aka helping others with technology support. My senior year of high school in 2004, I developed a proprietary online software application that allowed people to store their files in PDF format and access it online through a website, aka “in the cloud” to be more organized. I designed it to help fix a need at the office I worked at. This was way before the idea of the cloud was mainstream, and the software actually flopped because it was ahead of its time. If it existed today, it’d be something similar to Dropbox and Box.net but it was ahead of its time because the majority of people didn’t even have high speed Internet access available to them, so it meant a file would take 5-30 minutes to download/view. Today, that same file is available in seconds. Sometimes I wish I would have stuck it out a little longer with that software, but I don’t consider it a failure, as it taught me a lot of valuable lessons… when my classmates were trying to get through the last year of high school and figure out what they wanted to do with their lives, I was pitching my software and concept to business executives at age 17 … that is pretty intimidating to anyone, especially a 17 year old, but it helped me to develop a backbone in business and to become confident in myself and my abilities.I was given a job offer to work for my school district my junior year in high school as an intern. After being brought on, my boss at the time hired me to work part-time while I attended college. About 2 years later, they offered me a full time position in the IT department, of which I accepted. I continued to go to school at night and completed my bachelor’s degree in Management in May of 2009. All throughout high school and college I continued to work on building J-TEK up and took on as many clients as I could handle. I daydreamed of the idea of making it into a actual company and making it my full time job. In May of 2010, I decided to take the “leap of faith” as they call it, and pursue J-TEK full time. I had a lot of support from family and friends that encouraged me to pursue it, but a lot of people also thought I was absolutely crazy. Keep in mind, the economy had just hit rock bottom (at least for my lifetime so far) and millions of people were unemployed and couldn’t find any work at all. I had several people tell me I was insane to leave a good paying job to pursue something so risky… I had 3 weeks paid vacation, sick time, healthcare benefits and retirement/401k at my full time job … looking back, I was a little crazy to risk all of that, but that’s what separates entrepreneurs from the rest of everyone else. It takes extreme risk to start a business and I think my age has definitely been a HUGE factor to my success, but it also has been a struggle. I looked at it this way – if I fail, I am still young in my career and have time to dust my shoulders off from a failure and go do something else without any major consequences… I didn’t have a family or significant other to provide for, etc. I basically adopted this nothing to lose mindset and I wasn’t going to let myself or others down … I wouldn’t allow myself to fail. Since then, I have worked countless hours towards building the company up. We have grown a ton in less than 2 years. My friends and family tell me we have done well for being in business less than 2 years and in the “worst economy ever” but as an entrepreneur and business owner, I think you always feel like you should be 10x better than where you are. Looking back though, I am really proud of what I’ve built, a completely different type of IT/computer support company that is focused on keeping technology solutions affordable and friendly staff to help resolve issues. We just launched our second location and hope to launch a third one later this year possibly. I’m so glad that I took the leap and decided to pursue the business full time. I haven’t looked back since! We have a piece of wall art that hangs in our office saying “Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained” and I think that is so true and it reflects my attitude towards entrepreneurship.
Jason: I think I have known my whole life I’d be an entrepreneur, but I really started thinking about it at age 8. I read business books when my friends were reading kids books. I’m a motivational reader … my friends tease me that I love all things inspirational, haha.
Sarah: Where did you come up with your idea and what investigation did you do to help you know that this would be a great business?
Jason: Where I’m from, a small town outside of Kansas City, there wasn’t a lot of computer support available, so I started helping residents and businesses in town and that spread to where I ended up helping others in neighboring towns and cities and then just branched out from there. Computers and technology have only gained popularity, so I knew it would be a solid business to be in.
Sarah: What do you think are the most important skills you have that help you in business and that other kids starting a business would need?
Jason: When you’re first starting out all you can think about is “what am I going to buy with all of this money I am going to make” before you actually even make a dollar. I know that was the case for me – I was out shopping for a new BMW and half-million dollar home when I hadn’t even closed a sale, haha. I think that people are motivated to become an entrepreneur when they see successful people on TV or around town driving expensive cars, wearing expensive clothing, going on awesome vacations, etc but the reality is, that all comes in time, BUT not before a lot of hard work, and I mean a lot. I think it’s also important to surround yourself with people that believe in you. As cheesy as that sounds, I think it’s probably the most important thing … people that don’t believe in you will only try to convince you that you’re going to fail, you have a stupid idea, etc. With enough negativity like that, a lot of people don’t ever pursue their dream or invention. Don’t let what others think of you impact your decision on what you want to be when you grow up. Don’t be afraid to ask for help – anyone that says they did everything themselves is a liar. No one can build a successful business by themselves – you have to have input from others (parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts/uncles, customers, etc) as well as a team to keep you grounded and focused on your goals. Adults are more than willing to help kids be successful. I was lucky in that my parents have always supported my decisions, but I do realize that some kids aren’t that fortunate. If that’s the case, I think a teacher or mentor of some kind is a great person to bounce entrepreneur ideas off of. I can think of so many of my teachers that I told my stories and ideas to, and every one of them listened and offered encouragement and advice.
Sarah: What were the biggest obstacles, problems you had in getting started as a kid in business?
Jason: Funding was a big obstacle for me (in my mind at least) – we all get hung up on the “well I can’t do it because I don’t have any money” thing but the truth is, if it’s not accessible to you, you find other ways to make things work. There are so many examples of this in my business. When I couldn’t afford to buy parts for example for computer repairs, I had customers pay for the parts and even go get them for me (before I could drive) so I could do the repairs. You just think of ways to get around the “I don’t have enough money” obstacle. Huge companies were started with pocket change… pretty cool if you ask me. I think being young is an obstacle but also a HUGE advantage. As far as an obstacle though, because you’re young, sometimes people do not take us seriously, at least until you establish some type of credibility. I can think of so many times when I could tell someone didn’t do business with me when I first started because I was “stupid teenager” in their mind. You definitely get that vibe from some people. If you make it a big deal, others will too.
Sarah: What about college? Are you planning on going? Do you think that college is necessary for kids in business?
Jason: I really contemplated on going to college since I already had the business. Ultimately, I decided to pursue my Bachelor’s degree so I had a backup plan in case things didn’t work out with my business and being an entrepreneur. Do I believe it’s necessary for kids in business? Absolutely not. I think that experience outweighs a degree any day. I would hire someone that knows how to do a job well WAY before I’d hire someone with little experience but has a college degree. I do think that some fields it is more mandatory though and almost a right of passage. A lot of people don’t take you seriously if you don’t go to college, but I personally do not think it makes a huge impact to have one or not for my business. As a business owner though, I will say going to college did help me interact with others better and from different backgrounds, so if anything I think it gave me the courage to keep pursuing my business.
Sarah: What kind of expenses or start-up costs did you have when you started your business and where did you find the money or capital to start? Have you found that there are places to help kids starting a business to find funding?
Jason: Initially the startup expenses were really small. I have always done everything myself in terms of money/capital. I didn’t get a loan to start J-TEK full time, I saved money from my full time job for cushion and off I went. I think building a business is a gradual thing .. you don’t get the office in the highrise tower building overnight … it takes time, so we have always gradually bought things and done things as we grew. Eventually though, I think we will likely have to seek outside funding or investors to accomplish the next phase of the businesses development and growth. I would advise you visit your local chamber of commerce, as well as your bank to tell them about your business and your goals. They have contacts of other people and organizations that can utilize you and your product/services and can be a resource for you in the beginning of getting your business launched. Parents are also a great resource to help fund a business. If it’s a solid enough business venture, I’ve heard of parents taking out loans on behalf of their children to help them get started, etc. I think the best way is to save your money and take it gradually though.
Sarah: What have been the best surprises that you found in starting a business?
Jason: I actually really love the freedom of it. It is seriously a huge risk to be self-employed and a lot of people get so devoured in work that they lose track of what is important. I am surprised at how awesome it feels to wake up and go to work, even though no one is telling me to, I have no “set” schedule (I do still have to work though!) and that each day we continuously get better and improve on things and help customers with their needs. It’s a pretty cool feeling. I’m not sure I could ever work for a company again actually.
Sarah: Do you do EVERYTHING by yourself or do you have people on your team that work with you? If so – how did you find people to help you along the way?
Jason: In the beginning, I did EVERYTHING myself and I mean absolutely everything. I had a really hard time delegating things, because I wanted it done MY way and MY way ONLY. Eventually though, your business will succeed enough to where you CANNOT do it all yourself, it just isn’t possible. Once I got to that point, I started outsourcing things like printing of advertising materials, answering the phone, accounting, etc. I think it’s important to recognize your strong points and outsource or get someone else to help you with your weak points. My strong point is customer communication and marketing and sales. I absolutely love getting up and talking about J-TEK and how we do things, because there is no reason why anyone shouldn’t use us over someone else. Now that we are busy enough, I have technicians that work with me to help repair computers and solve tech issues. Finding good people is NOT easy AT ALL. We’ve went through a lot of struggle finding decent staff. We developed a hiring process and everyone has to adhere to that. It has policies and procedures and expectations in place just like a “real” company. After all, how can you expect employees to do what you want if you don’t have it written out or explained appropriately? Depending on the business, you can find people pretty easily. We asked around and received decent referrals for technicians, but I’d also recommend speaking to your local Chamber of Commerce, as well as Universities and Community Colleges to get good talent. Students are looking for experience and can be taught “your way” if you’re willing to help them learn.
Sarah: What ideas and approaches do you use to market your business and what do you find works best for you in getting the word out about who you are and what you are doing?
Jason: Word of mouth is HUGE for us. Because of this, we make sure all of our clients are happy with us and the work we do. We actually do not do any form of advertising at all. It is all 100% reliant on word of mouth. Facebook and social media is huge for us though. Just a quick shout out like “Thanks J-TEK for getting my computer fixed and back to me fast! You’re awesome!” on someone’s wall, will generate 1-10 calls from their peers sometimes. Our website is a good marketing tool too – we are working on building a blog where we will become a resource for our clients to find out more information on technology, so they recommend our site to others and those people become customers eventually too. Networking groups – I started going to them originally to get our name/brand and awareness out there to members of the community. I recommend these to entrepreneurs and people just getting started too – eventually you won’t need them but they are crucial to start the word of mouth referral engine you need to fuel your business in the beginning.
Sarah: How do you balance it all? Do you find that you still have time to be a kid or is it all about business?
Jason: This is a hard one for me. I get so consumed in my business sometimes that I don’t focus on myself enough. My advice, ALWAYS make time for yourself… no matter what. When I started my business I was working 20+ hours a day 7 days a week for about a year straight. I gained about 60 pounds and felt awful and my sleeping pattern got way out of wack. It’s important to make time for yourself … if you don’t have your health, you have NOTHING. Nowadays I focus on myself for a least one hour a day – I go to the gym and work out or take my dog on a long walk… something physical to help myself lose the weight I gained from the stress of not making time for myself. I also travel frequently, about once a month lately, to get my mind off of work, even if it’s just for a quick weekend getaway. Have fun being a kid – remember, you’re only young once in life … make sure you make time to have fun.
Sarah: What is the best business advice or tips you would like to share with kids who want to be CEO kids?
Jason: My advice is to go out there and start your business. Don’t be afraid of failure… the biggest failures give us the best lessons and experience. If you don’t try you will never know what might have been. There is never a better time to start a business than when you’re young… before you have a family, vehicle, home, debt, and all the craziness that comes from being an adult.
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