Hannah Altman: The 9-Year-Old CEO

hannah-altman-interviewSchool's almost out for many children. For some enterprising kids, lemonade stands will start popping up around the country . But some children take a more serious approach when it comes to business. At their early ages, it's hard to predict whether they're going to give Warren Buffett a run for his money -- but their entrepreneurial spirit is to be admired.

Hannah Altman, of West Bloomfield, Mich., is 9 years old. But in just a year's time, she's built a mini toy empire that started with pencil toppers.

"A year ago I went out dinner one night and I saw cool pencil toppers in the vending machine," she says. "I had never seen them before. They were really new."

That ability to spot trends before they hit mainstream has led to the success of Hannah's Cool World, a website that sells toys. And pencil toppers are hardly small potatoes; the website has sold more than 250,000 of them in just over a year. The company has 8500 registered customers in the US, Canada, and the UK. You won't find much of her merchandise in Toys R Us though; products are sourced based on what's hot in Europe.

Entrepreneurship had been stewing in Hannah's family; her parents started a home-based zipper-pull company called CoolZips.com. Hannah actually named their company and watched them build it from hand-making the zipper pulls at home to finding a Hong Kong factory to filling orders that grew from 20 to 200 per day. Now with the growth of both companies, Hannah's dad, Rick Altman, quit his day job to focus on the Web stores. 2010 gross sales are projected to reach $500,000--enough to support the whole family. Sales in 2010 have already doubled 2009 sales.

"There's a lot less stress," Rick notes, "now that I quit my other job, where I was putting in 50 hours (per week) there and then 50 hours here. To us, this is fun. We have told Hannah that if you find something fun, and you work hard, you'll be successful. It's fun; we're playing with toys."

CEO, age 9

Hannah isn't just the name behind the brand. She wrote the website, fills orders, and leads customer service. She also drives the buying decisions even if she can't personally attend toy industry trade shows -- children are not allowed. Her parents head up finance and quality control as managing partners.

"We make sure every item that we sell is in compliance," says Lauren Altman, Hannah's mom. "We hire a lead testing company to make sure toys are safe. We also look at latex and phthalates. If we wouldn't want Hannah playing with it, we won't want it in other houses."

Being a kid

Hannah still finds time to be a kid, which is important.

"I have school, I play basketball and soccer, and play hockey and baseball at home," she says. "I always just find time. I just do homework right when I get home."

She says she's not stressed.

Dan Kindlon, who teaches child psychology at the Harvard School of Public Health and has written four books on child development and mental health, says kids with entrepreneurial spirit is a good thing.

"I think in this culture we tend to downplay kids' abilities," he says. "Kids used to be economic assets for the family. We keep children as children in this culture far longer than most other cultures. Kids are usually capable of more than we give them credit for."

He says it's parents' responsibility to make sure the child is enjoying the business and set ground rules from the beginning, including making sure children get enough sleep.

"The National Sleep Foundation recommends kids get 9.25 hours of sleep," he says. "If they can't fit it all in, then something should go."

In the 1980s sitcom 'Family Ties,' Alex P. Keaton, played by Michael J. Fox, lived and breathed capitalism. Hannah, on the other hand, plays down her business side when she's at school -- which Kindlon says, is normal.

"It's like child actors going back to school -- they just want to be normal kids," Kindlon says. "They don't want to talk about being in movies with Johnny Depp."

The benefits to children being involved in business are many. Hannah has become better at math, and few 9-year-olds comprehend economics as she does. Her parents say she understands the value of money and pricing for goods and the importance of good customer service. She also knows the importance of charity, donating a percentage of sales each month to the National Wildlife Federation.

Budding Buffetts

Some children start retail businesses online such as Pencil Bugs, a 5-year-old business. Owner Jason O'Neill, 14, has a book coming out this summer about his experiences. Others head for brick-and-mortar opportunities like Umar Brimah, 14, did when he opened a Japanese anime store in Cape Girardeau, Mo. (with some help from mom).

Still other kids get the benefit of school support. The Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship works with schools to establish formal business development programs for kids in middle and high school. The program has reached 280,000 students in 21 states and 12 countries.

Back to Warren Buffett. When he was only 6, he bought six-packs of Coca-Cola from his grandfather's grocery and then resold the bottles. Six-packs cost 25 cents. His bottles, at a nickel each, turned a five-cent profit. Not a bad start for the world's third-wealthiest individual.

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