Mud Pies and Pokémon Cards: Lessons Learned on the Playground

In elementary school, there are always those kids– the ones everyone associates with something. Every school has the kids who zoom around on Heelys, the kids who would give you a stick of gum if you asked them really nicely, and the kids who would remind the teacher that they forgot to collect last night’s homework.

While I shamefully admit that I may have been that last kid a few times, during elementary school, my friends and I were also notorious for doing two things.

The first was as “the kids who dig in the field during recess.”

We built everything from mud pies to full-blown forts. One time, we were digging around in the soccer field and found a large patch of clay which we used to mold into miniature tanks and shot each other with tiny clay mortar shells during the middle of class. Mrs. Brown did not appreciate that.

The second thing that we were known for was as the hustlers who were the go-to guys when you had a little extra allowance and wanted to buy something that the cafeteria did not sell. Whether it was a pack of Chicken Top Ramen or the shiniest new Pokémon cards, my crew followed the demand and provided the supply.

I distinctly remember my very first sale. That day, I pulled out my crumpled brown paper lunch bag to find that my mom had packed me a boring old PB&J sandwich. As I grumpily sat at the end of the white laminate table, I watched as one of the big fifth graders smugly pulled a Lunchables tray out from his bag. How could the world be so unfair?

A plastic tray filled with short stacks of bite-sized Ritz crackers, turkey slices, and cheddar cheese complete with a fruit punch juice box, Lunchables laid at the very top of every elementary school kid’s Maslow hierarchy of needs. I instantly knew that I had to have those Lunchables, and while my PB&J sandwich lacked any substantive trading value, I knew that I could offer something the other kids could not: comic books.

A young Stan Lee back in the day, I drew a comic book series called Sun Boy & Leaf that followed the adventures of Sun Boy, an anthropomorphic lion donning a perpetually straight fedora, and Leaf, an aptly-named leaf-shaped bug. I had just finished the newest installment of Sun Boy & Leaf earlier that day, and so going from table to table to table, I traded my way from a comic book to a bag of chips to cookies and a bunch of other items until finally, that turkey, cheese, and cracker tray was mine. The fifth grader had already drank the juice box, but at that point I no longer cared. No juice could quench my newfound capitalist thirst.

Realizing the power of trade, I set out to build my empire, recruiting my friends to join. Eventually, we were pulling in such high cash flows that Principal Shell had to bring us into his office one day and explain how it looked extremely suspicious that a group of young boys wearing extra-large American Eagle hoodies were exchanging goods and money behind the green slide in the corner of the playground.

Reflecting on these childhood shenanigans, I realized how much I enjoy building things of my own, as well as sales. In high school and college, I began experimenting with entrepreneurship, building small businesses instead of mud pies and selling novel products instead of what I could find in my pantry. Some of these experiments were successful, like a technology training business called Teach My Grandma, and some ended up failing, like a dessert kit startup called Patisse. But I learned early on that I eventually wanted to start my own business. I do not know what that company will be or what it will sell, but I do know that years down the line, I will be building something of my own. For that, the little boy inside me who hustled and dug holes in the field smiles.


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