How to pass a business gene across generations: Entrepreneur Kurtzig, 10, follows in grandmother's high-tech footsteps

Courtesy of Los ALtos History Museum
Like grandmother, like granddaughter: Sandra, left, and Jamie Kurtzig participate in the Los Altos History Museum’s Family Day event last month.

Silicon Valley’s love affair with high-tech innovation starts young – not just with Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education, but with entrepreneurship.

At the Los Altos History Museum’s Family Day last month, the kindergarten through eighth-grade crowd explored a 3D printer and drones, but they also heard about a young life in business from the source when local entrepreneur Sandra Kurtzig interviewed her 10-year-old granddaughter, Jamie, about what it means to be a young entrepreneur.

Jamie started her first enterprise two years ago at age 8 and is still hammering away at business plans, marketing and supply-chain logistics. She and her grandmother gave the Town Crier a behind-the-scenes look at how business chops pass across generations – and where a young person might start at developing his or her own.

In the early 1970s, Kurtzig founded ASK Computer Systems Inc. in Los Altos, which grew into one of the largest software companies in the world. The company started with local roots – to Kurtzig’s recollection, ASK managed the circulation schedule for the Los Altos Town Crier and its sister paper in Cupertino.

Jamie, who lives with her parents in Marin, joined her grandmother on stage to describe creating a product to waterproof and customize iPads. She’s new to public speaking, but that’s part of the gig for a founder.

“It went really well, but I think that I do better when I give longer answers and go into the little details,” Jamie reported of her local appearance.

Product development

The submersible iPad cover Jamie developed, the WetPad, includes hand-drawn decorations. She shares proceeds from sales with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF). Jamie received a Type 1 diabetes diagnosis at a very young age, and has participated in fundraising for research throughout her childhood.

The WetPad development process included the usual hallmarks of product evolution – Jamie prototyped with different plastics and seals, using a swimming pool and dummy iPad to test different versions.

“After I figured out it would be easier if I bought things that other people made and added some of my own work to it, I purchased about 10 iPad covers, tried them all out and graded them on how well they functioned, how good they looked and how light they were,” she explained.

She picked a winner, raised a modest seed round from friends and family, calculated a price point in consultation with her board of advisers (also family) and started selling.

“That was the big question: What would the market bear?” said Kurtzig, one of Jamie’s board members. “She figured out that she wanted to have a 50 percent gross margin, because she wanted to give 50 percent of her profits to JDRF.”

Customization proved key.

“What she found was there was incremental value in putting the picture in when it was sealed,” Kurtzig said. “It was a good gift to give for Mother’s or Father’s Day.”

Business shark

Jamie’s business idea started with a desire just try her hand at the trade. Watching a competition of child entrepreneurs on TV had reminded her that she could start her first invention at any age.

“I think that having a family that is familiar with this helps, but also I think that anyone can be an entrepreneur,” Jamie said. “Steve Jobs was adopted – no one in his family was an entrepreneur – and he became a really great person and sold lots of his products.”

Kurtzig said both of her sons are entrepreneurs, so Jamie grew up hearing business conversation as “a natural thing” in the family’s daily life.

But insider insights weren’t the main inspiration for Jamie’s project – a more accessible inspiration really lit her fire.

“I think the real thing that triggered it was not just our conversation, but also that she watched ‘Shark Tank’ (Fridays on ABC) – hearing them talk about business on the TV, and talk about products,” Kurtzig said. “She said, ‘Gee, it’s not only for adults – kids can do this also.”

Combining work & fun

Jamie said she’d learned the usual lessons about how success can follow hard work since starting her first business. But she’s also picked up on a philosophy shared by her grandmother: “I’ve also learned that having fun is a very important part of good business, because if you don’t have fun, then why would you want to do it?”

“I certainly had fun at both ASK and Kenandy for a long time because we were developing something that was really useful for companies and we saw corporations using our products,” said Kurtzig, who founded enterprise resource planning company Kenandy Inc. in 2010. “It’s psychologically rewarding to see companies running their whole business with our products.”

Kurtzig has some words of advice for young entrepreneurs.

“One of the first things I would tell people is that if you’re going to figure out a business, you’d better figure out a business that you’re going to love,” she said. “If you don’t love what you’re doing, you don’t love your product.”

Publicity is Jamie’s next challenge – she’s designed a website she plans to build with help from her parents and continues to find opportunities to pitch her product.

Jamie’s next presentation is slated for next month at the JDRF’s “Royal Ball” fundraiser.

“It’s a fun family event for anyone who wants to support diabetes research,” Jamie said.

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