This is what I learned from my first (small) business at the age of 16

It was 2006 when I went to the tenth class of secondary school in Germany, at this time I was 16 years old. Due to the entrepreneurial spirit of my family, espacially my brother and my dad, I got used to the idea of starting an own business very early.

Together with a school friend I worked on our ideas in the afternoons or on holidays. While other girls and boys in this age spend their leisure time in the shopping mall or on the soccer court, this always felt like a hobby and it never like a force to us. Since I had no clue about tech it was a lucky coincidence that this friend was totally into coding. By the way, this guy is a godparent to my son today — so starting a business with friends can also work out.

Customize your garage door

Finally a friend of us shared a little idea which was in his drawer for some time already. He asked us if we would like to work on it since it could be an educational first business and he won’t find time to execute it anyway. And so we did.

Our plan in a nutshell: 
Offering a plug-and-play solution to customize all the ugly, grey garage doors.

A little bit more detailed, we wanted to print either standard pictures or an own photo from the customer on large films. Those films were fixed by span belts to the garage doors and within some minutes you got your dog (or whataver you want) on your garage.

How it could look like — Image source:

In the retrospective, to start a mass-customization e-commerce business with an online configurator and 2 meter large films to ship might have been a tough idea :-)

We did some sales — and made it to the TV

We invested a lot of time and really started from scratch. I remember visits at a local printing company checking out the best material for our product. Another day we sat in my friends car (he was 18 already) driving around in our hometown to do a market research on our own. Unfortunately there are not much reports about the amount of garage doors with or withoud nice painting out there ;-)

Talking about marketing we went all-in on PR (since we had no money for anything else). It turned out that two pupils who start an e-commerce business right from school wa a welcome story at this time. We made it to the biggest blog about startups in Gerany at this time, local newspapers (yes, the printed ones), a radio show and, last but not least, the local TV station.

This lead to some attention and also some sales (some means 5–10 ;-). We also visited the customers and assembled the product on their garage doors by ourselves, based on the mostly local media which promoted us the first customers were local as well.

Visiting a lawyer

I do not really remember how we found out about it, but at some point we recognized another player in our niche. What we also recognized was a little note on it’s website saying something about an existing utility model (compareable to a patend, but cheaper to get).

Due to this we visited a patent lawyer asking for his opinion. To cut it short, we decided not to raise an objection against this utility model and asked the competitor for a license to use it instead. After an daunting answer from their lawyers we decided to stop our first own business after some month.

My 3 key learnings

Even it was only a short term success I will not miss this experience at all. These are my 3 key learnings from this time:

  1. Just do it—No matter how old (or young) you are and how much experience you have or not have. Get things done and start with small tests.
  2. Spread the word — PR is a cheap channel which worked good for us in the beginning, but it might need more effort than setting up some Facebook ads in the beginning.
  3. Do your homework — Market research, product development and of course patent/trademark research, you have to be the expert for your product and your market. Invest the required time to get there.

Hopefully you generated some learning from this short story.