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Small Business

Children Mean Business

Summertime and the living's too easy, judging by the flood of e-mails I get from bored and broke 11- and 12-year-olds. "What can I do to make money for an iPod Nano?" "Do u think that selling water at soccer games is a good idea?" "I have a future career as a pro skateboarder but I don't have enough to buy wood for ramps. E-mail me back or my career is down the toilet."

Why do these kids come to me and not their parents? Maybe because they get the same reaction from Mom and Dad that Tom, 11, gets. "Every time I ask a question about being an entrepreneur, my mom says I'm too young," he writes.

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Parents have a lot on their plates, and often they don't know how to respond when their kids ask how to get a job or start a business to earn money. Or maybe they really do believe that 11-year-olds are too young. But in a world where we're all expected to be entrepreneurs and reinvent ourselves to stay competitive in the workplace, it's never too soon to encourage kids to develop and follow through on their own ideas. Perhaps the example of a project initiated two summers ago by Amanda Wilcox, now 10, and facilitated by her mother, Melynda (a former Kiplinger's colleague), will provide inspiration.

A family affair. Amanda has a passion for pandas. So to mark the first birthday of the panda cub at the National Zoo, Tai Shan, Amanda had the idea to create a board game with a panda theme. Players make a circuit of the board (hand-drawn by Amanda), landing on black or white squares, drawing cards with facts about pandas and following directions to move forward or back.

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She christened the game Pandarama, and guided by Mom, spent about 20 to 25 hours refining her drawing and poring over panda fact books with her twin sister, Laura, to choose trivia questions.

Then Melynda took over to figure out how to reproduce the game (she made a color copy, then laminated and packaged it in a zippered plastic bag, with glass beads as game pieces). Mom and dad David picked up the production costs (about $2.50 per game), and Amanda began selling it to friends and family for $10, with proceeds going to the zoo's Giant Panda Conservation Fund. Mom also paid $45 for a copyright but resisted spending $325 for a trademark registration. "We didn't know where she was going with this," says Melynda. "It might have been just a fun summer project."

But when Amanda's project was featured in the Washington Post and sales picked up, Mom decided to go ahead with the trademark -- only to discover that Hasbro had just filed an application to trademark the name "Pandarama" for a toy under development. Doing a bit of legal research, Melynda learned that because Amanda had already been selling her game (and had raised about $500), it wasn't unreasonable to request that Hasbro withdraw its application -- and she did.

Hasbro replied within a few weeks, proposing an agreement that gives Amanda limited rights to produce up to 500 copies of Pandarama each year. Hasbro also offered to make a contribution to the panda fund; the Wilcoxes suggested $5,000.

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Hasbro agreed, and both sides were satisfied. "Money was less important than Amanda getting to see that problems could be solved productively," says her mother. "She just wanted to keep making her game."

Not every venture will get this far. But all kids need basic input from parents, even if it's just to suggest money-making projects (hauling recycling bins to the curb and back, collecting mail for vacationing neighbors) or to give advice on how youngsters can follow through on their own inspirations (find guidance for kid entrepreneurs at www.sba.gov/teens and www.youngbiz.com).

Amanda Wilcox gives her mom full credit for "doing the complicated stuff." But, she says, "I thought up the idea."

Janet Bodnar, columnist and deputy editor, is author of Raising Money Smart Kids.