By: Geoff Williams
It almost sounds like the makings of a TV show. With shades of Disney’s Hannah Montana or Nickelodeon’s True Jackson, Hannah Altman is a fifth-grader by day and a CEO by night.
The 10-year-old helps oversee Hannah’s Cool World, which has 12,000 registered customers across the globe, having shipped products to countries as far away as Italy, Israel, Norway, Spain, Australia and New Zealand. In 2009, the year it launched, the website sold more than 250,000 pencil toppers, referred to as squishies.
Hannah’s Cool World is part of West Bloomfield, Mich.-based IBeOn, the $500,000 company Hannah’s parents, Rick and Lauren, started in 2007. The name for their business’s website was CoolZips, something then-6-year-old Hannah came up with — the beginning of her professional life. CoolZips.com sells handmade decorative zipper pulls for duffel bags, jackets, backpacks, stuffed animals and the like.
Lauren had left her job as the executive director of the Michigan chapter of Camp Mak-A-Dream to be a stay-at-home mom, so she had time to work on CoolZips.com. Rick worked as a senior manager for a parking equipment company by day and on CoolZips.com at night. At home, Hannah was there to learn about profit margins and marketing strategies.
But that pattern changed in 2009, when the family went to a restaurant that had a vending machine with pencil toppers. Hannah was transfixed and asked her father for a quarter. Rick suggested it was a waste of money, but Hannah really wanted one, so he gave her a quarter. Best money he ever spent.
Hannah wanted to start a website where she could sell pencil toppers. Not wanting to quash their daughters’ entrepreneurial spirit, Rick and Lauren agreed. They developed a hastily made website named Hannah’s Cool World and purchased a few Google ads so customers could find it when they typed in “pencil toppers.” Then they went on a family vacation. When Rick checked on the site, he saw orders were coming in for the pencil toppers.
The next time they passed a vending machine, Rick dug out some quarters and said to Hannah, “See what interests you.”
The orders at CoolZips.com continued on a hot streak, and the pencil toppers and additional toys and gifts from Hannah’s Cool World were selling, inspiring Rick to make it his full-time business. In May 2010, Rick quit his full-time job to work with Lauren and Hannah.
“Having a business like this has given us a lot of freedom,” Rick says, though in many ways, he’s tethered to his office more than his previous one. “We work every day, all hours a day, but it’s something we truly enjoy. I always tell people that if you’re going to start a business, you have to find something you truly like doing. You don’t just pick out flashlights and sell them. You have to find something you love doing. If it’s golf, do golf. We genuinely have fun with this. When we get a new squishy or eraser, we love looking at it and playing with it and finding things that we think our customers will like, and I think that’s why we’ve been successful.”
Hannah is working hard, but she’s hardly missing out on a childhood. In fact, she estimates spending about five hours a week on the family business, working an hour a day after school. Hannah says her main duties are to look online to see if she can learn about any new, hot products she thinks would sell well on the website. She sometimes helps to fill orders or take the lead on a customer service issue.
In any case, it isn’t easy being a kid CEO straddling two different worlds. “I don’t really talk about it much at school,” Hannah says, but unlike Hannah Montana, she doesn’t hide her second identity either. “When they come over and hang out, they see the different toys everywhere and what we carry and think that’s really cool.”
And while it would undoubtedly be even cooler for Hannah to draw a six-figure salary as adult CEOs do, it hasn’t exactly worked out that way. “We consciously take money from her company to go toward her education and wedding and Bat Mitzvah and future expenses,” Lauren says. “We’ll give her money from the business for some big-ticket items, like her guitar, but we’re trying to put it in the bank for her, so she’ll have it later. That’s a tricky thing. When you’re 10 and you have your own company, and you’re making money, you want it.”
Meanwhile, when Rick and Lauren go to a toy trade show like the big ones in New York and Las Vegas, they don’t bring Hannah. They’d like to — but they simply aren’t allowed. “I’ve asked before, explaining Hannah’s role, but they’re adament,” Lauren says, “No kids, period. The way they see it, if they let one in, they’d have to let all of them in. They feel kids would be saying, ‘I want this, I want that,’ when they’re just trying to do business and negotiate.”
And so Lauren and Rick never make buying decisions at the shows — they bring brochures and catalogs back to the CEO of Hannah’s Cool World to get her input for what they should purchase. That’s something that a humbled Rick learned early on: Let a kid make the buying decision for the kid customers.
Says Rick, “About a year and a half ago, we were looking at these monster pals figurines, and I said, ‘I don’t like them.’ I thought they looked stupid and babyish, but Hannah loved them. So we ended up selling them.”
Based on Hannah’s tip, they’ve sold thousands. Kids say the darndest things.