America’s Tween Entrepreneurs: Anna Tselevich’s Box-o-Mania

Anna Tselevich, 12, just turned every child’s favorite toy—the box—into a business. Lauren Streib on the club of young impresarios who go beyond lemonade stands.

Anna Tselevich was 4 years old when a new refrigerator arrived, bearing a home appliance and a new favorite toy—the box. She did what most kids are wont to do, and turned the oversized cardboard shell into a playhouse decorated with crayons and furnished with pillows. The box was eventually forfeited to the garbage pile, but it sparked a lasting idea in Tselevich. She wanted to create a permanent playhouse for kids that could be decorated and customized.

Now 12, Tselevich is the brain behind Box-O-Mania, a “unique toy company” that launched this year with her father Max as the CEO. The company’s primary offering is the Box-O-Mania play box. Constructed out of lightweight corrugated plastic, it can be decorated with removable, reusable stickers with themes like a beauty salon or fire station, and can be drawn on with washable markers. “It’s like a giant cardboard box but it’s better,” Tselevich explains. “You can make this your own and express your creativity.”

In September, Box-O-Mania announced a licensing agreement with Marvel to feature character-theme play boxes. First up: an Iron Man-themed box slated to be available this winter. Of course, grade school capitalists are not a new phenomenon, but the deal could launch Tselevich into a rarified club of successful young entrepreneurs who have gone beyond lemonade stands.

“It’s like a giant cardboard box but it’s better.”

The cast includes Abbey Fleck, who created and patented the Makin’ Bacon dish for cooking bacon when she was 8; the dish landed on the shelves of Target, Walmart and other national stores while she ended up opposite David Letterman and Oprah. Ben Casnocha created Comcate Inc., when he was 14, turning him into a start-up guru. And most recently, Maddie Bradshaw created the Snap Caps bottle cap necklace when she was 10. Her two-year-old company M3 Girl Designs now sells 50,000 necklaces per month.

Fostering risk-taking and creativity in children can ensure that they learn the basics of economics and independence—and develop a mentality of innovation. “It’s a challenge to get people to put their arms around entrepreneurship, but it’s critically important,” says James O’Neill, an economics professor and director of the Center for Economic Education Entrepreneurship, which develops entrepreneurship programs for educators. “We have to foster entrepreneurialism if we want to continue to be an innovative country.”

Stephanie Bell, a spokesperson for Junior Achievement, a nonprofit that focuses on youth entrepreneurship education, agrees. “We strongly believe that teaching kids the value of innovation is critical to our competitiveness in the global economy,” says Bell. “Their minds are more open.”

Naturally, some of the best teachers are parents. In Tselevich’s case, her father encouraged her to develop and execute her idea from the perspective of an entrepreneur (he started a staffing and audience agency in 2003) and a parent who liked the idea of a kid’s toy that didn’t involve a screen. “We live in this world of electronic gadgetry. [Physical play] is something kids are getting away from,” he says.

The father and daughter duo went through the usual ruminations of product development—research, focus group testing and experimentation—before coming up with the final version of Box-O-Mania that became available for sale from online retailer Sensational Beginnings and in August, with additional sticker kits for sale, as well. Upon Tselevich’s urging, 15 percent of profits will be donated to charity.

Max says it’s too early to make any sales projections or growth goals, but admits Anna has already started to dream up new models in different sizes and colors. Not that boxes are the only thing she has on her mind. “I’m really enjoying this now but it’s my dream to work in the medical field,” said Tselevich.

Lauren Streib is a reporter for The Daily Beast. She was previously a reporter for Forbes.