The Next Amazon? 5 Tips for Launching a Student-Run Store — and...

21st Century Skills

The Next Amazon? 5 Tips for Launching a Student-Run Store — and Teaching Entrepreneurship

By Chris Aviles     Oct 31, 2016

The Next Amazon?
5 Tips for Launching a Student-Run Store — and Teaching Entrepreneurship

This article is part of the collection: The Data Workout: How It’s Impacting Teaching and Learning.

The Innovation Lab, at New Jersey’s Fair Haven school district, is our 5th and 6th grade STEAM creation. Our motto is: We use Design Thinking to make for others. The lab is a blended-learning shared space where students can choose pre-made projects and design challenges from our four pillars—Computer Science, Engineering, Digital Arts, and, now, Entrepreneurship. They can build something in Minecraft: Education Edition, for example, or combine a Makey Makey kit with Scratch. If and when students are ready, they can also design their own projects and challenges that tap into their passions, such as Raspberry Pi security systems or weekly podcasts.

We didn’t always offer entrepreneurship in the Innovation Lab; the initiative grew out of a need. Some projects in the Lab were never finished—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing—and some completed projects were just forgotten about or discarded. I was trying to think of a way to both motivate students to complete projects and, at the same time, find a use for their projects once they were finished. One day I thought, why couldn’t we sell them? And FH Gizmos was born.

Today, we use FH Gizmos to expose Fair Haven students to entrepreneurship. In our elementary school, FH Gizmos is a third-grade-run pop-up store. In our middle school, it is a student-run, online school startup that functions just like Amazon. Students create and run their own stores under the FH Gizmos umbrella; I act as the Chief Innovation Officer and oversee all the student vendors along with my partner Katie Smith who acts as CEO. In both marketplaces, students are responsible for every facet of the business; they keep The Book, order stock, do the marketing and advertising, handle customer service, look for new revenue streams, and decide how we spend the profit.

Students at their elementary school store

FH Gizmos is built the same way one would build a real, online business. This was done by design. I wanted to make the experience as authentic as possible—my students are running a startup and trying to turn a profit. FH Gizmos provides them with real-world entrepreneurial experience they won’t get anywhere else. Part of this authentic learning comes from students working with and interpreting real-life data. The Book is a Google Sheet that acts as our ledger. The backend of the FH Gizmos site has advanced analytics that track important customer information like product views, popular categories, popular times of the day and week for shopping, and anything else you ever could want to know about customers.

With this data, I work with students to make decisions on FH Gizmos next steps. For example, last year third graders found out that Tuesday and Thursday were our best selling days; they extended hours on those days and shortened them on others. Students noticed that our best selling products were paper notepads, so FH Gizmos employees ordered extras in place of poorly selling erasers and then sold off the erasers at a loss. By analyzing the data, they made the informed decision to cut their losses, liquidate the inventory, and use the funds to buy more notepads—which they sold for $2.00 at quadruple the wholesale price—to make their money back.

In the middle school, FH Gizmos online employees had to figure out how much to charge for 3D prints, such as a replica of Hogwarts or YouTube play button. This involved determining the length of a spool of filament, how much a spool cost per millimeter, and how much filament was used per print. With this data, students set the price. They also had to decide how long, if at all, to put an item on sale, how much of a discount to offer, and if it was smart to up sell customers by bundling items together. (Sample bundle: a custom Minecraft skin along with a custom YouTube artwork for a Minecraft channel.) Students tracked site traffic and offered flash sales at our busiest times. FH Gizmos employees also used their soft skills and business savvy when they sent envoys to art classes, clubs, sports teams, and parent groups to see if they might be interested in opening a shop on FH Gizmos—in exchange for a percentage of the revenue.

Visitors per day to the middle school's online store; full size image here

It is important that students get an opportunity to think about entrepreneurship at a young age; even though they might not realize it, most people are one great idea away from starting a business. As fate would have it, a fellow teacher and I were bringing a video game to market at the same time we were beta testing FH Gizmos with students. I never thought I would be part of a startup, but SiLAS—which helps students with social-emotional learning—is my great idea. In school, subjects are traditionally taught in silos. But running a business taps into everything you’ve ever learned and forces you to use it all in concert. I wish I had more practice getting cross-curricular in school, so I do my best to recreate real-world challenges for students through FH Gizmos.

If you run a makerspace or similar offering, consider finding a way to add entrepreneurship to the curriculum; it’s a natural fit. Here are some tips to get you started:

  1. Do it yourself! Use Wordpress, WooCommerce, Stripe, and a few choice plugins to create the optimal platform for student-controlled stores that teachers can oversee. No need to have a company build an expensive store that a teacher can’t even control.
  2. Launch! Don’t worry about not having a lot to sell. Start with just one or two student stores and items and scale as kids become more excited in the process.
  3. Educate and advertise! Most people don’t know something like this is possible in a school. Furthermore, customers can’t buy anything if they don’t know your store exists.
  4. Make it authentic! When our students create businesses they get a stock certificate and 100 shares in FH Gizmos; this entitles them to vote on how we spend our profit. Additionally, I encourage students to use the same vocabulary they would hear working at an actual business.
  5. Brand it! Your store should be an extension of your school's mission and vision. It shouldn’t just get kids excited, but also give all stakeholders something to rally around.
Middle school employee

We are just getting our online stores off the ground for this year, using the lessons learned from our beta test last year. We hope FH Gizmos will inspire kids to think about entrepreneurship and products they can create to change the world; to read data and act on it; and to develop soft skills like storytelling, team building, dispute resolution, and strategic planning—skills that are vital to their future success.

Chris Aviles is the Edtech Coach for Fair Haven, N.J. school district, where he runs the Innovation Lab and related Innovation Initiatives.

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