Jason O’Neil is 13 years old. This 7th grader started his first business, Pencil Bugs, when he was only 9 years old. He was named one of Forbes’ Top Ten Role Models 18 & Under and O’Neill was named 2007 Entrepreneur of the Year in the under-16 category. Pretty impressive for a kid that hasn’t even reached high school!
A Pencil Bug is a cute, handmade, pencil topper. No two pencil bugs will ever be the same and each comes on the top of a #2 pencil with a Certificate of Authenticity which includes their name, the date they were born, care and training instructions.
YOUNG MONEY: What gave you the idea to start pencil bugs?
JASON O’NEIL: My mom was making some items for a craft fair. My plan was to help her paint the little wooden door stoppers and then hopefully she would split her money with me. She thought they were going to be a big hit so she didn’t want to share her money. She said I had to come up with my own idea. I thought about a lot of different products and then started drawing out designs. I knew I wanted to make something for kids; something that they could use in school or at least school related. After I tried a few ideas, I came up with Pencil Bugs.
YM: Did you do the designs yourself?
JO: Yes, I came up with the design myself but my mom and dad helped me actually make the first 24 for the craft fair. The three of us still hand make them until we can find the right company to mass produce them.
YM: Is it hard running your own business while you are in school?
JO: No, because my mom takes care of most of the day-to-day things while I’m in school. My parents believe that school comes first and then my business but I also have time to be a regular kid and play.
YM: Have you had any problems because you are so young? Tell me about them.
JO: Yes. Because I’m a minor, I can’t have my name on anything legal. Also, kids sometimes tease me because I have a business and I’m so young. I think some of them are probably jealous and just don’t know how to react. Besides that though, there have been more good things than negative things because of my age.
YM: What advice can you offer other young people trying to start their own companies?
JO: Don’t give up because it’s not always going to be fun. If you never give your ideas a chance, you’ll never know what might have been. You can’t get anywhere by sitting on your ideas. If you have a product or service you want to try, hopefully you have some adults to help out because it’s nearly impossible to do a business on your own when you’re a kid.
YM: What plans do you have for the future?
JO: BIG PLANS. This year, we’ve been working with several different companies to try and get my Pencil Bugs mass produced so I can expand them into retail stores all around the country. My mom and I also collaborated on a book series for 7-10 year olds about the Pencil Bugs characters. We have the first book done and are submitting it to publishers. We have a working prototype for a Pencil Bugs board game which is really fun to play and I’d really like to find someone to help me produce my video game idea. I also have ideas for a picture book and would like to have a plush toy version of the Pencil Bugs for younger kids and babies. We’re also working on an inspirational book about my experiences so far. I plan on doing more public speaking at schools and organizations about my business because it’s fun encouraging other kids to try their ideas and I love being in the spotlight and traveling. If everything goes well, maybe some day there will be a Pencil Bugs cartoon and then . . . Pencil Bugs: The Movie. If Spongebob can do it, so can Pencil Bugs.
YM: Tell me anything else you would like me and my readers to know.
JO: Since I started my business, I’ve been donating to help other kids. I first picked a local foster family agency and gave a portion of my earnings to them. They used it to buy things the kids needed. This summer, I started a program with Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, CA. I’ve never been in the hospital so I can only imagine how it would be. I thought if I could buy toys and activities and put together gift bags for a bunch of kids, they’d really appreciate it and maybe they wouldn’t feel so bad if they had things to keep them busy. At the end of the third quarter this year, I took 25 bags filled with notebooks, color crayons, stuffed toys, and of course, my Pencil Bugs products. Around Christmas my goal was to make 50 bags with even more goodies. I put a post on a blog asking for people’s help and we definitely got it from a lot of generous people. I think it’s important for everyone to help out if they can and even if you can’t do a lot, even the smallest thing can change another person’s life. You just never know.
My products have been shipped throughout the United States and Canada and as far away as Lesotho, Africa; Cairo, Egypt; and Denmark. That’s pretty awesome to think I’m international. In addition to the original Pencil Bugs and bookmarks that we hand make, I now have a Café Press online store where people can buy really unique gifts with my logo and Pencil Bugs characters. I also offer Pencil Bugs as fundraisers for schools or groups.
I’ve won several awards which I’m really proud of. I was the youngest person ever to be awarded the Young Entrepreneur of the Year from Young Entrepreneurs of America when I was 11. I also won a Young Philanthropist Award for my charitable donations, a college scholarship from the Kohl’s Kids Who Care Program, and just recently, I received a Community Leadership Award. Probably the biggest honor so far was when Forbes.com included me in their first Top 10 List for Role Models 18 & Under. Famous people like Miley Cyrus (Hannah Montana) and Nick Jonas of the Jonas Brothers were just two of the celebrities on the list.
Most kids have to wait until they graduate from high school to be able to do anything with a college. This summer, Cornell University interviewed me for their eClips website. Its part of their Applied Economics and Management Department and students from all around the world use the information on that site. That was pretty fun taping that interview and then seeing me on Internet in short clips about different topics.
Most of the time I think of myself as just a regular kid who happens to have a business. But when I got a call from Mark Victor Hansen (co-author of Chicken Soup for the Soul series) asking to interview me for his upcoming book about young entrepreneurs, I was amazed! Things like that are starting to happen more frequently and it’s really exciting because I know I’m getting to do things that many adults never have the chance to do.
I’ve been really lucky with a lot of opportunities like being invited by a company in Nairobi, Kenya called Nurture Smart to be a judge and guest speaker at their summer camp and entrepreneur competition. They run a program for kids there to teach them about business and entrepreneurship so that their next generation will be better equipped to help their own country. They are expanding on their program so hopefully by next summer, everything will be set and I’ll get to go there.
I have to say that I’m very thankful that my parents support me so much because I wouldn’t be able to do this without them. Hey, I am a kid after all and everyone needs support from someone.
Check out Pencil Bugs here: www.pencilbugs.com