Common Sense for Business & Life from a Teen

By B. Collins

pencilbugsOn the cover of Bitten by the Business Bug, inventor/entrepreneur Jason O’Neill sports braces, a tie and his Pencil Bugs, a whimsical pencil-top decoration he created when he was 9.

Now 15, he’s since been featured in Forbes as one of its young Top 10 “Hot Role Models to Admire,” appeared on national and regional television broadcasts and is now promoting his self-published book.

Jason, who lives in Temecula, Calif., has transcended lemonade-stand entrepreneurialism with Pencil Bugs, fashioned from Styrofoam balls with googly eyes and pipe cleaners. Building on the success from sales to school friends, he launched a blog and retail Web site, which also sells Pencil Bugs bookmarks and greeting cards. The book, published this year, is an extension of his Bill Gates-size business ambition.

Jaded soul that I am, and so effective at marketing himself, I suspected Jason has had tons of help from mom and dad. His mom, Nancy, said in an e-mail to the magazine that they said “no thanks” on going through a book agent, who wanted to hire a ghostwriter – that’s someone who writes a book for you, but you get the credit. That’s so cheating.

So she helped Jason go through his journal to cherry pick the best anecdotes and learning lessons to write the book without an agent.

“The farther we got along in the process, the more Jason did,” she said. “It was a huge learning experience for him because he not only became a better writer, but he also learned about the whole self-publishing process.”

I say let’s give the kid his due – he’s written a terrific book, filled with warmth, candor, humor and insight. More insight, in fact, than most of the adult-written business and inventing books that cram store shelves these days.

Here’s a kid who learns from his mistakes and isn’t afraid to share.

When his driveway lemonade and cookie stand failed to generate customers, who smiled and passed him by, he investigated. He found a rival had set up shop at the entrance to his neighborhood. He learned a valuable lesson about business location.

Likewise, when he failed to advance on the NBC game show 1 Vs. 100, he managed to engage the host, who had flubbed the name of Pencil Bugs (he called it Pencil Bug instead of Pencil Bugs). The camera lingered on Jason, as he corrected the host.

“At that moment, I did not care at all that I was eliminated,” Jason writes. “I knew my time on national television was going to mean more in the long run.”

While Pencil Bugs may not match the sales success of, say, Snuggies, Jason offers a healthy dose of pay-it-forward. He gives an undisclosed portion of his sales to charity – kindness that has paid off with great media exposure in the Southern California area.

“If you do anything in life strictly for the money, you are doing it for the wrong reasons,” he says, sounding more like Warren Buffett than a braces-wearing teen.

But he also keeps a keen eye on the bottom line, a lesson he says he learned from his grandfather, who taught him three things about money:

1.    Don’t loan it unless you can afford to never get it back.

2.    Save as much as you can – being frugal is a good thing.

3.    Don’t mix friends and money.

He says he’s never been in debt or had to borrow money and that after paying for supplies and other expenses, the rest goes into a college fund.

“Currently, I have two employees,” he says, “who thankfully work for free (Mom and Dad).”

Jason is a kid who admits he loves being in the spotlight. And he’s making the most of it. But in a good way.

About midway through is 179-page book, he recounts the time store managers would let him sell Pencil Bugs out front. (Note: standing and smiling is a better way to engage customers than sitting.) He hasn’t forgotten the experience.

“One day when I am grown up and Pencil Bugs are as well-known as SpongeBob or any other character, I would like to get permission again to set up a table outside one of the local stores that helped get me started.

“But I would not sell Pencil Bugs,” he says. “I will give them away to every kid that comes by.”

Pencil Bugs Online

Editor’s note: This article appears in the November 2010 print edition.

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