A recent post on Business Insider by Rishi Chowdhury titled “Being a Young Entrepreneur” got me thinking about being young, being entrepreneurial and the affect it has on how others view us.
Chowdhury maintains since it is much easier to start companies today, we are seeing many more founders in their late teens and early twenties emerge with significant web products. This has happened because they 1) come to coding and technology more naturally, 2) have the free time and 3) have less in their life weighing them down. He notes:
It is also more common place to see teens who have taught themselves code and are able to create innovative web apps due to the freedom they possess. As this generation has grown up along with social networks, they know how to leverage these. What may start out as hobby/after school project can turn into a real business.
That’ s the upside, easily being able to start a company. He then goes on to illustrate the difficulties in being taken seriously and actually building a company at such a young age. I fully agree with Rishi and whatever the challenges he sees ahead, based on his writing I believe he has a great future ahead of him.
But what about those of us who aren’t Mark Zuckerberg, who didn’t trip onto a great idea in their late teens and now have more wealth than we ever imagined? What about the guy in his mid-late twenties, who isn’t seen as the next “wonderkid” but cannot seem to shake the entrepreneurial bug that chases him everywhere he goes? How about the people out there who don’t know how to code, have never actually created a web app but still dream of building a great business?
I believe sometimes we can be too hard on ourselves. I think we look at the lucky few and think “geez, that guy is like 5 years younger than I but he is one of the richest people in the world! How did he get so lucky?” This is not the right perspective. Mark Zuckerberg is an exception, and an outlier who has skewed the tech founder perspective.
It is still harder than ever to create a breakout business. Actually, it’s quite a bit harder than it was 10 or 20 years ago. Why? Because when it’s extremely easy and cheap to create a new web/mobile app, thousands and thousands of people do. And when so many more people get involved, the market gets overcrowded. When the market gets too crowded it becomes incredibly difficult to stand out and be discovered by enough people to achieve a critical mass of users. Today, you must be very good at what you do to make it big. Quality now matters more than ever – quality in product as well as quality in person.
So how does one go from a non-technical industry to becoming a tech executive? Or put another way by Rishi: “A big consideration when starting your company while still very young, is how are you supposed to be taken seriously as a young entrepreneur?”
Well, my advice to Rishi as well as all other entrepreneurs: Be an exceptional person.
1) Build yourself as you build your company
From this day forward and for the rest of your life, you will be interacting with older, more educated and much wealthier individuals. Sorry to tell you, but they usually will decide if they want to work with you within 5 minutes. The trick is to quickly impress on them your strengths and abilities, usually within the time it takes to finish your elevator pitch.
This can be the biggest obstacle of all – your personal presentation – especially if you don’t have the luxury of saying “oh, and I’m a Harvard (or Stanford) grad.” How much time you devote to development of your wisdom, knowledge, wit, personality and social skills will be obvious to businessmen, CEO’s and investors the moment they meet you. I am a firm believer you can really move forward in life by polishing yourself each day. No one should ever leave the student mentality.
A few ideas:
- Audio learning whenever possible- I listen to Stanford ecorner podcasts each week and it’s like I am in the class. I also listen to ITconversations when I am driving.
- Read books like it’s going out of style – business, tech, personal development, fiction, etc…
- Get uncomfortable and reach out to people whenever possible; learn from each interaction
2) Build your network as you build your company
I cannot tell you how valuable “the network” is, and I am referring to the professional networks like LinkedIn. Whatever you choose to go with, reaching out and connecting with well established people validates you as a professional. Once you get connected (via email, phone call, mutual friend into, etc…) immediately book an in-person meeting. Overlooking a personal meeting is the biggest mistake most young (or less connected) people make today. Put bluntly: virtual connection does nothing but link you with someone else. To leverage the connection, you must sit eye-to-eye, open yourself up and let the other person get to know you so they actually understand how to best help you. This can only happen through in-person meetings.
A few ideas:
- Reach out to your local tech network and introduce yourself to others in the community
- Ask to have coffee and meet them in person. Interview them and write about it!
- Build out your LinkedIn connections, more people validate you with it than you might think
3) Build your vision as you build your company
There is something magical about hearing someone describe a vision of how they intend to change the world, especially if they are younger in age. Doing this separates you from the crowd so when you do connect with others they will remember you and your unique vision. Who wants to listen to someone says “oh, we’re the guys doing daily deals for X industry”? They most likely won’t remember you or what you are doing with a vision so undifferentiated. Get passionate, creative, and innovative around something new and start talking about it.
A few ideas:
- Look at industries which haven’t been fully transformed by the web and search for pain points
- Take the long view and have courage to paint a unique vision, tell the people you meet about it
- Use “the network” to find others who share your vision, they might just turn out to be future partners
I understand it’s difficult to be taken seriously as a younger founder because it’s the same as a (relative) newbie to the tech scene, and I’m just barely out of my twenties myself. We are not Mark Zuckerbergs, who seemed destined to create the next big thing. But it also doesn’t mean you are any less qualified to lead a great organization. It just means you have some extra work ahead of you. And as an entrepreneur, that shouldn’t come as a surprise.
If you are young, you are going to hear (from yourself or others) “You’re too young . . . who do you think you are?” If you are older, you hear, “Your time is past . . . stay where you belong?” You just CAN’T listen to those voices. Now is the time–at least to take deliberate steps toward what you want and start to make it happen.