You were a kid entrepreneur — remember?
A story of pre-teen hustle.
Five colors/flavors, jumbo size, never stale. These were the principles of my solopreneur, early-middle school business:
The drug-dealing style distribution of Jumbo Gumballs.
Before we jump into details of my sugar-drug hustle, take note: children are natural entrepreneurs and adult entrepreneurs are just big kids (looking at you, big-kid reader).
Remember the natural, risky curiosity and enthusiasm? Actually listening to and playing with people?
You were allowed, and allowed yourself, to try things and make mistakes. You had to — everything was new.
Guess what? Nothing’s changed — it’s gotten worse (aka better). You can bring it back (Use: inner-child hippie protocol).
Back to the gumball game:
I sold to everyone and had a loyal customer base. Kids with extra lunch money were perfect. In fact, that’s how it started. One of the rich kids bought a gumball from me as I waited for the bus. I had a couple left from a 5 pack bought over the weekend. Price? He had 35 cents left from lunch.
Quickly, I dropped the price to 25 cents — quick and easy to find customers with extra quarters. Buying in bulk from the Tops market down the street, profit margins ranged from 60–90% depending on waste and unconsidered school holidays.
My first batches were a simple collection of all colors/flavors, 1–2 balls of each. Red, Blue, White, Orange were the clear winners. Market testing left me chewing the leftover, gross yellow and green balls at the end of the day. I doubled down on the most popular colors, and quickly built regulars who came to me for their particular afternoon color and flavor fix.
I launched the business late in the spring semester, and had amassed a loyal customer base (aka sugar addicts) and $200/month+ in revenue before summer break.
I was profitable the first day. The envy of the coveted paper routes in the neighborhood was replaced with an obsession for creation of my own, independent role in the world.
In the middle-school gumball market, there were plenty of risks, challenges, and competitive threats:
Candy bar sales: “Sorry, I already bought a Butterfinger”
- Sports clubs usually kept to the $1 price point for their giant fundraiser candybars. I had a price advantage, yet vending machines offered variety and easy, approved access to claim excess lunch money.
Teacher/principal crackdowns: “Who gave you permission to sell these?”
- Adults limited my ability to scale and spin up other salespeople. Parents didn’t like my recruitment of their children to sell on commission. Some teachers could be bought off with a White Peppermint in the afternoon.
Overstocking and old supply: “I can hardly chew this. How old are these?”
- The store got lazy from time-to-time in re-stocking their bulk supplies. When I let QA slip, my gumballs became hard, bland, unsatisfying.
Delinquency: “I swear, I’m getting cash for my birthday and will settle up with you on Monday. Just let me have a blue one today.”
- Everyone had a tab it seemed. Most paid on time — at the end of the week if they squandered their extra lunch money that day. I was not an intimidating figure, though my network of fellow wrestlers and friends on the football team helped to shake out overdue accounts.
Where did the drive start?
5–6 years before the gumballs, I took a different stance on the summer lemonade stand. No Kool-Aid, no lemonade, instead I slung a “premium” Ice-Tea.
Sun-brewing was tough and time-consuming. With a little higher mix-to-water ratio than the instructions called for, and some added lemon juice after, I could sell a standard Solo cup with ice and tea from a powder mix for a full 25 cents a cup.
Most stands were charging 10 cents for Kool-aid or generic lemonade. My customers tended to be older. They valued the caffeine and less candy-like taste of iced tea. Adults had more discretionary income and were willing to invest in something with caffeine.
I hired a younger neighbor to optimize/exploit the cuteness factor in child-owned roadside businesses. He brought in some initial interest, but the constant tree-climbing and distraction outweighed the benefits. The Polish-American sisters down the street were more effective and worked for ice tea.
We all start out with an honest, real-revenue mentality and understanding of commerce and cooperation:
We share, we love, we trade, we get greedy, we give too much away. We fail, learn, find balance and respect.
Now, I have a deep-ish, ever-evolving understanding of nutrition and biological effects. Selling sugary gumballs to pre-teens may not have been the best contribution to developing minds and bodies. Remembering the money spent on my product would have gone to vending machines or convenience stores to purchase things equally as bad — there wasn’t any added harm in my alternative. Considering the latest research on sugar’s effect on us, the drug-dealer comparison isn’t far off.
But hey, they were supporting a local business, right?
I carry the lessons of my childhood entrepreneurship with me like tools in a toolbox. Sometimes we forget the toolbox. The old tools get pushed to the bottom. When we remember and pull them out again — turns out not much has changed. Gumballs or software, they can be used to test:
- Product features (colors/flavors/shape)
- Pricing (25 cents, easy payments)
- QA and Distribution (taste tests and freshness tracking)
- Market Feedback & Product Validation (yellow tastes funny)
- Customer Loyalty/Stick (Sara = 1 white +1 orange. Brad = 2 Blue …)
The biggest lesson I apply now? Deliver Real Value.