Opinion

Teen entrepreneur pushes the limits of what’s possible

Ethan Kalkwarf writes in his memoir, “Your presence means more than presents.”

I was struck by his statement — so much so that when my sons came home for the holidays, I tested the theory out and took them to see Avatar on opening night.

I was so happy to do so. It’s an amazing movie and I’m planning to take them again, in 3-D this time.

Did Mr. Kalkwarf, a local businessman have any other words of wisdom to share? I was curious to find out.

I had read a profile of his Web site design business, Phase 5 Designs, and heard glowing comments about him. I even wondered if it was finally time to take the plunge and get a Web site.

It’s a big decision, and I was nervous when we initially made contact by phone.

He set me at ease immediately. He offered me samples of his work, and over the course of two weeks he asked a variety of questions to get me thinking about Web sites and what type I might need.

A blog? Yes, he could make it without a comment section.

Online Pay-Pal? He could do that, too.

When we met for our business consultation, he came prepared with a clear outline of what services he could provide at what price.

He followed up with thoughtful suggestions and questions. He asked if there was anything else I could use – new business cards, labels, flyers or product announcements – to ensure I was marketing myself in the best possible way.

In fact, his professionalism was everything I would expect from a businessman with a proven track record of over 10 years running a successful small business.

It was not, I must admit, what I would expect from a 16-year-old high school sophomore.

Ethan Kalkwarf, owner of Phase 5 Design, recognizes it’s difficult for most of us to accept that a 6-year-old could start a business or that a 16-year-old could successfully run two.

He wrote his business memoir and how-to-book, “Teen Entrepreneur,” to change all that.

“People are always giving what they believe are inspirational talks to teens,” Ethan said. “They mean well, but they’ve got it wrong. What do the words, ‘You are the leaders of tomorrow, the future of our country’ really mean? That you should wait until you’re 30 to start a business, make a difference?”

Suffice it to say, the teen entrepreneur believes you shouldn’t wait to live your life, whether you are 15 or 50.

He should know. In the early chapters of the book, he tells the story of learning how to vacuum and then immediately deciding to take that skill on the road.

That is, until his mother found her 5-year-old going door to door with the family’s vacuum sweeper and insisted that he stick to kindergarten.

A year later he struck upon his second business concept – one that thankfully kept him in the house or at least close to it - handmade gift cards for Christmas packages.

While the cuteness factor played a big role in early sales, it wasn’t long before the elementary student was covering his expenses and making a profit.

By the time he was in fourth and fifth grade, he was committed to spending every weekend from early November through December at local craft fairs and bazaars.

In cold, drafty gyms, he learned the tools of networking before he even knew the words.

He grasped what so often fails us adults – the true ins and outs of marketing and sales. At the age of 9 and 10, he learned how to transform every conversation into a business consultation. He learned to ask people of all ages and persuasions if he could offer them something to help them in their lives and their business.

When they shared their needs and he recognized he didn’t offer what they desired, he expanded his product line.

Before long he was offering book plates, address labels and printing services.

Along the way, he learned something greater, something many adult business owners fail to learn until they can’t pay rent – when to shift gears.

At a craft fair, he looked around and realized he wasn’t “offering anything new or original.”

He was underwhelmed with his own sales and products. While that frustrated him, he didn’t stop there.

He went to work seeking the answers to how to reach a wider clientele and provide more creative and inventive services and products. He spent months doing market research, even conducting a customer survey to gauge satisfaction.

“You can’t just offer what you like,” Ethan said. “You have to offer what your customers need and want.”

Thus far, his company’s clients include WYou can catch up with the busy teen for more of his wisdom. He’ll be signing copies on Jan. 16 at Cosmo’s Deli, 1821 SE Lund Ave. from 3 to 5 p.m. and will offer the book for sale through his website: www.phase5designs.com and at Bethel Ave. Book Company.

Here’s a piece of business advice – get his book and autograph early — while you can. At the rate he is going, there will come a time when it’ll cost hundreds of dollars to hear him speak and even more to attend one of his marketing seminars.

For now, he’s our own Port Orchard whiz kid and “Teen Entrepreneur” and we might as well learn what we can from the kid.

Mary Colborn is a Port Orchard resident.

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