What were you doing when you were 12?

When Steve Jobs was 15, he was working in the HP factory. Bill Gates was debugging software for the Computer Center Corporation. At 12, Thomas Suarez is building iPhone apps and giving TED talks.

Only decades ago, it was legal for children to build things. When I was a teenager, I was allowed to wield power tools during my summer/holiday jobs. By the time I graduated high school, I was earning $10/hr as a carpenter’s assistant. By the time I finished college, I was making $15/hr as a passably skilled carpenter. But that’s still a penance compared to what young people were allowed to do back in the day.

In the early 1800s, children could begin apprenticing when they were old enough to be useful, and very few failed to reach maturity and self-sufficiency by the time they were 18. Remember David Farragut (“Damn the torpedoes!”)? Yeah, that was him at 13 years old commanding his own ship in the War of 1812.

The early 1800s were also an explosive period of creativity and productivity in America, and a time when the majority of (free) Americans were self-employed. Coincidence? Doubtful.

Contrast that with today: Now, it’s illegal for anyone under 16 to be around a power tool, and anyone under 18 must be directly supervised (i.e. they can’t work independently, which pretty much makes them useless). What does this accomplish? Builders won’t hire a teenager, and kids will reach 18 years old with no practical skills.

Fortunately, programming is different. Why do Americans still lead in software development? While most other forms of child labor are criminalized, the state hasn’t yet figured out how to keep them from programming. As a result, kids can still build things with computers. They can still become accomplished programmers by the time they’re 18. Then they go on to build worldchanging products.

The same great things could still be happening outside of software. But they’re not; instead of young people spending their time developing self-sufficiency, marketable skills, and practical experience, they sit in classrooms, learning that the only way to learn is to be instructed.

Actual entrepreneurs versus aspiring entrepreneurs

I’d like to see a more stringent definition of entrepreneur. Most of the people we call entrepreneurs have ideas and proto-businesses. They haven’t yet built actual businesses. They are brave souls, no doubt, and they deserve our encouragement. But out of respect for the people who have done more than make the effort and commitment to build a business, I propose that we distinguish between aspiring entrepreneurs and actual entrepreneurs.

At what point does someone cross the line and earn the title? Is it the moment they quit their full time job? Is it when they’ve secured investment or a small business loan? When they hire employees? When they get featured on TechCrunch? When they’ve exhausted every last dime of their savings chasing windmills? No. I think we should use a more straightforward measure.

Starting a business shouldn’t qualify you as an entrepreneur. I propose that — no matter how much money you’ve spent (or raised), no matter how many employees you’ve hired, no matter how much traffic you have, no matter how much press you’ve received — until a customer takes his or her money and pays for your idea, you are still an aspiring entrepreneur.

You become an actual entrepreneur the moment a customer purchases the thing you’ve built. And at that same moment, your thing becomes an actual product. You have conceived of an idea, brought it to market, and the market has accepted it. Congratulations! You’ve earned the right to be called Entrepreneur.

And once you reach that goal, you can set your sights on becoming a successful entrepreneur.

Hey parents and sitters! Register for Sitterup

You can now sign up for a username at Sitterup.com, my new double-top-secret stealth startup. So head over there and reserve your username — before you get stuck with something like geoffreygrahamatlanta2011.

Once you’ve reserved your own, please encourage every sitter and parent you know to do the same.

What is Sitterup? Sitterup will help sitters sit more for the good kids and parents they know and trust.

It won’t be a “find a babysitter or caregiver” service — Wendy and I already know a handful of exceptional sitters. Instead, Sitterup will make it easier for sitters to share their schedules with the parents for whom they regularly sit, help parents book their trusted sitters faster, and we might even throw in some mobile payment processing just for fun.

So if you regularly babysit or have children yourself, reserve your username now, and we’ll let you know when we launch.