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DeWitt teen wins national entrepreneurship award for canary business plan

Justin Wilkinson has built a successful business that really is for the birds. The 17-year-old junior at DeWitt Central High School raises canaries and finches, selling them to local pet stores and bird enthusiasts.

The National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) has selected Wilkinson as a Youth Entrepreneur of the Year, one of four high school students from across the U.S. honored after submitting outstanding business plans.

Justin and his mother, Pat Wilkinson, earned a free trip to New York City March 28 for NTFE's annual dinner, where he will receive a $750 cash prize to be used toward his business or educational pursuits.

Last July, Wilkinson attended BizCamp, sponsored by the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (JPEC), the University of Iowa and NFTE. At BizCamp, Wilkinson learned how to evaluate a business idea, write a business plan, find financing, and market a business. Justin was able to apply what he learned at the camp in his business, J.A.M. Singers.

Wilkinson started with six birds in 1998 and later found there was a local demand for the canaries and finches. His first and probably most satisfied clients are the residents of Westwing Nursing Home in DeWitt who like to see the colorful birds and hear their songs.

One of the things Wilkinson credits BizCamp with teaching him is how to do market research. He found that while the pet stores could ship in birds from Florida and other distant spots, locally bred canaries were often healthier and therefore better singers. This knowledge allowed Justin to expand his business with confidence. "For any potential customer, knowing the age and health history of a bird is very important," Wilkinson explained.

He now has about 60 birds housed in his parents' basement, and he carefully feeds them and keeps the room warm and well-lit. Wilkinson takes pride in his business, even offering to do follow-up visits to check up on the birds he has sold. He spends about 10 hours a week with the business.

"My family and I put a lot of care into each bird and guarantee excellent quality," he said. "I try to meet the needs and demands of my customers, such as picking which birds to breed for the desired bright yellow or orange color."

He has also developed his marketing strategy by getting referrals from a local veterinarian, and getting feed and bedding discounts at Matt Kennels Supply, thanks to a good word from FFA adviser Dan Smicker.

The canary business is also Wilkinson's FFA Supervised Agriculture Experience project, which required him to keep detailed records of the enterprise. In addition to the NFTE Youth Entrepreneur Award, Wilkinson recently won a state FFA proficiency award in small animal production, and will compete for a national FFA award.

Like many small business owners, Wilkinson finds his biggest challenge is expanding his customer base. But there are other challenges unique to the canary trade -- he needs to keep an eye on the family cat, which once ate a blind canary after a birdcage door was left open. (No, the cat's name is not Sylvester -- it's Honey)

J.A.M. Singers is named after Justin, his 13-year-old brother Alex and 8-year-old sister Madison, who both chip in with the care and feeding of the canaries. His parents also help out with the business, but Justin is responsible for most of the bookkeeping, marketing and daily operations.

Alex is next in line to take over the business after Justin goes to college. What is Justin's advice to his little brother and other potential entrepreneurs?

"Running a business should be fun. If it turns a profit, that's fine, but going into business is something you want to do," Justin said.

For more information about the Youth Entrepreneurship Program at the UI, contact Dawn Bowlus at (319) 335-0985 or dawn-bowlus@uiowa.edu.


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