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Early risers: Teen startups delivered key lessons for today's leaders

A trio of business leaders recall what stands out from their first companies.


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Monaca Onstad

Monaca Onstad (Courtesy photo)
Monaca Onstad (Courtesy photo)

Current role: Founded a company in February 2021, Lakewood Ranch-based OnPlace, that helps master-planned communities nationwide create, develop and build amenities and other components for a neighborhood. Onstad launched the firm after some two decades doing similar work for developers, including Lakewood Ranch developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch. She’s already grown to three employees in the first nine months, and is working on multiple projects. “I’m on the other side of fear now,” Onstad says, about starting something on her own after being with bigger organizations. 

Childhood startups: Onstad, 47, had two startups while growing up in a tiny town of 500 people in Northeast Alabama. First, when she was eight or nine, she and her sister sold tickets and ran a concession table that sold hot dogs outside their dad’s dove hunting competitions. The girls earned a percentage of overall sales, she says, “looking to buy the next new thing, like records.” 

Read more: 5 things startups need to do to woo investors

Lessons for today: One key lesson Onstad learned early on was about supply and demand: with no Target or Walmart in town, she quickly discovered an opportunity to supply products in demand local residents couldn’t get without driving somewhere else. She also had to handle her own inventory and sales data, which taught her to focus on multiple tasks at once. And within satisfying demand, Onstad learned the value in getting to know customers. “You have to know your demographics,” she says, “and what products they want to buy.”

That last point is a straight line to OnPlace: Onstad says the firm’s success in year one has come, in some part, from knowing what works in some communities, demographics per each neighborhood and other intricate details. 

One other significant lesson? Overcoming rejection. “I don’t let the nos get me down,” she says. “Just because it didn’t work out one way, you have to keep going to figure it out. If you work hard and are diligent, then good things will happen.”

 

Kimberly Manooshian

Kimberly Manooshian (Courtesy photo)
Kimberly Manooshian (Courtesy photo)

Current role: Executive director of the Gulf Coast CEO Forum, a business leadership organization in the Sarasota-Bradenton region focusing on relationships, ideas and solutions to common business issues. Manooshian has also worked in health care and senior living, in marketing and sales, and event planning. 

Childhood startup: When Manooshian was in ninth grade, growing up in the Richmond, Virginia area, she made and sold barrettes to other teenage girls at school. Her original goal in launching the business, in the mid 1980s, was simply to be able to buy Jordache jeans — the ones with the ankle zippers. “The fact that I made enough money to afford those,” she says, “was a really big thing back then.” 

Read more: How to take your company from startup to unicorn

Lessons for today: Manooshian quickly recalls how starting a business targeting what was then, to her at least, an elite customer base —cheerleaders — was a big deal. She later sold her homemade barrettes to other students in the school, changing colors and designs. “I was a very shy kid,” she says, “but all of a sudden I had something all the kids wanted.”

Overcoming shyness led to something Manooshian utilizes often in her current role with the CEO Forum, a membership-based group that aims to bring in national, high-level speakers. That teenage business, she says, “taught me how to open up to people and have a conversation. You never know what’s going to come out of it. Even if you put your foot in your mouth that’s OK.”

 

Steven Pajevic 

Steven Pajevic (Courtesy photo)
Steven Pajevic (Courtesy photo)

Current role: A Business Observer 40 under 40 winner in 2020, Pajevic is the CEO of Sarasota-based Crystal Clean Green Cleaning and Cleanlio Inc. The former is a home cleaning business with clients in Sarasota and Bradenton he founded in early 2013. The latter is a company Pajevic launched in 2021 to serve as a consulting business for others who run or are starting a cleaning company.  He recently started a home watch business as well. 

Childhood startup: Growing up in Lakewood Ohio, Pajevic’s first business was a classic kid and teen startup: mowing lawns. First, when he was as young as eight-years-old, he knocked on the doors of neighbors’ homes, offering his lawn care services. By the time he was 12 and 13, Pajevic had expanded both his geography in the neighborhood and went seasonal — offering snow shovel services in the winter.   

Lessons for today: One important lesson Pajevic, 41, picked up early on was the power of marketing when a business sells a product or service, like mowing lawns and shoveling driveways, many others provide. Pajevic actually sort of did some guerilla marketing before it was cool, making his own flyers to put in mailboxes without permission from the neighborhood associations or post office.  When he was 14, Pajevic got his own phone line, to handle the influx of business. “I even had a pager, which I never used,” he says, “but it was pretty cool.”

Pajevic learned from mistakes, too, such as when he sometimes overspent on marketing, which cut into his margins. Seeing other businesses in the field operate, sometimes in not always the best ways, also helped teach Pajevic a core part of what’s now his entrepreneurial mindset, to “always lead from the heart.” 

 

author

Mark Gordon

Mark Gordon is the managing editor of the Business Observer. He has worked for the Business Observer since 2005. He previously worked for newspapers and magazines in upstate New York, suburban Philadelphia and Jacksonville.

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