Just about every year on The Apprentice you hear at least one of the tricky-to-love contestants boasting about how they set up their first venture before they were old enough to drive. Usually this involves them buying something in bulk and then selling individual items off to their pals, making tidy profits in the process. For every person thinking: “Good for you, old chap – that shows great entrepreneurial drive” there will probably be about 50 muttering: “What a hideous little creature you must’ve been – making money selling things to your mates when a nice kid would’ve been sharing.”
I must confess this is what I thought when I heard this week about Henry Patterson, a Bedfordshire-based 11-year-old who is making more than £1,000 a week from his retro sweetie business and was last year named as “one to watch” at the Great British Entrepreneur Awards. Do a Google image search of him and, as well as seeing pictures of him among his cute, sugary products, you’ll find a photo of him with his hair slicked back, arms folded across his pinstriped suit like a bonsai Gordon Gekko.
On the face of it, you wonder what kind of a kid would come up with the idea of a retro sweetie company on their own. Retro is for grown-ups who want another lick of that nostalgia lollipop, surely. It’s hard to picture “retro” products having any appeal to youngsters. “Yay! A vintage rocking horse!” cried no child, ever. But more importantly, you also have to wonder what kind of a kid is happy spending his spare time pondering pricing models and distribution channels when they should be out playing with their friends (or, as is more often the case these days, “in” playing with his friends).
Henry’s business success started when he set up Sherbert Pip, selling hampers of retro sweets and sweet-themed jewellery in his shop, which has now grown into a lifestyle brand called Not Before Tea, selling stationery, clothes, bags, clothes and a book that Henry has written. It’s called Pip Gets a Job and it’s about a mouse who tries to help out in a shop.
He started having business ideas at the age of five. When he was little he asked his mother for a Power Ranger and she said he’d have to sell some of his existing toys on eBay first. Fair enough. She set up an account for him, and he soon got a feel for how toys are funded. He also sold bags of manure for £1 a pop, and had his own car boot sale pitch, and eventually was able to set up Not Before Tea with some of his own earnings and a £17,000 grant fund. His annual sales now top £65,000, his products are sold by more than 70 different companies and he’s even launched his own YouTube channel for kids, called NBTV, where you’ll see a picture of him signing a copy of his book for Richard Branson.
The blurb on the site reads: “Welcome to NBTV! A children’s channel produced and presented by young entrepreneur Henry Patterson and his crazy friend, Bubbles the Goldfish. Follow their adventures as they make, bake and discover cool new things. You can even follow Henry as he runs his business and meets lots of exciting people.”
Before starting my research on Henry, I was all set to write a column about how uncomfortable – to put it politely - the idea of child entrepreneurs makes me feel. From a distance, it difficult not to imagine that there’s a greedy or pushy parent in the background, pressurising the young person to prioritise profit over other, more important things, such as friendship, kindness and creativity. It seems like a waste of a childhood – the one time in your life when you’re supposed to be free from worrying about money – and the all-out pursuit of profit is a bit, well, American for our liking, isn’t it?
But as I dug deeper it occurred to me that I was wrong to pre-judge Henry – and his mum – because this child is really no ordinary boy. On his website there’s a video of him addressing a “mumpreneurs” (ugh – their word, not mine) conference, and I have to say this kid is really engaging and confident, and clearly loves what he’s doing. He’s got the guts to stand up in front of hundreds of adults, warning them up front that he’s got a stammer, and presenting his business story – such as describing how he bought big jars of sweeties and flogged the contents off individually – in a genuinely likeable way.
He strikes me as a kid who is truly doing what he wants to do, who would be doing it whether his mother was encouraging him or not. And it brought to mind Scotland’s own Fraser Doherty, who started making jam from his grandmother’s recipes at the age of 14. After his farmers’ market success, he became the youngest ever supplier to a major supermarket – Waitrose – and quit school in order to focus on the enterprise. Superjam is now in the National Museum of Scotland as an “Iconic Scottish Brand” and Fraser, now 24, has diversified the business, which now organises parties for vulnerable people.
What these two have in common is that they are and were both genuinely doing something they enjoy. “Passion” is a word I usually find quite nauseating in the context of business, but they obviously have it for what they are doing.
While most of us are probably a lot more comfortable with the idea of children supplementing their pocket money with old-fashioned jobs like paper rounds, perhaps we’re stuck in the past. The jobs market is changing fast and it’s no longer the case that a graduate will easily be able to find employment in an area that suits their interests – or even skills.
Starting up on your own might be the best option for lots of people, and if people want to buy what you’re selling, maybe the rest of us shouldn’t be so judgmental about the age at which you start. As long as they’re allowed to call a halt when it stops being fun.