Dealing with Stumbling Blocks
By Vivek Wadhwa
One of the advantages of being a young entrepreneur is that you don't know what can't be done. You get to look at the world with an unencumbered perspective and take your own shot at changing it. You don't have to be burdened by old beliefs. Be aware, however, that you may just be repeating mistakes that others have already made (see BusinessWeek.com, 9/14/06, "Some Brilliant Mistakes"). And the world may not give you the benefit of the doubt because you are young—in fact, you are likely to face challenges solely because of your age.
When I decided to write this column about the stumbling blocks that young entrepreneurs face when starting businesses, I spoke to four young entrepreneurs at different stages in their careers to get their advice.
1. Learn how to handle rejection and be persistent.
My friend Jud Bowman, 25, says he had to choose between a scholarship to Stanford and pursuing his dream of creating a mobile search-engine business. Bowman decided to follow his dream and launched Pinpoint Networks when he was 18.
He says that even if you possess incredible intelligence, a track record of success, contagious passion, and an ability to make it seem like you're more mature than you are, young entrepreneurs should prepare to face rejection and doubt. He recalls how his parents repeatedly told him he was crazy to turn down Stanford to start his venture. He says nearly 60 venture-capital firms rejected him before he found an investor, customers wouldn't buy his product at first, and prospective hires wouldn't accept job offers. He remembers that he couldn't even buy a bottle of wine when he took his sales prospects out to dinner.
But he kept at it. He says that Motricity (created after Pinpoint merged with Power by Hand), where he now works as chief technology officer, will deliver $500 million worth of mobile content this year and is positioned to be the dominant player in the mobile applications market.
2. Get ready to take advantage of any opportunity.
One of my current students, Kareem Lee, 22, echoes Bowman's advice. While he says it was easy for him to bootstrap his tutoring and lawn-mowing businesses as a teenager, when he tried pursuing his dream of setting up a record label at the age of 19 in his hometown of Indianapolis, it was rejection all the way. He couldn't qualify for small-business loans because of his age, couldn't get potential partners or customers to take him seriously, and couldn't find an experienced mentor. People brushed off his passion and determination as a fad or childishness.
But Lee was and is determined to succeed and make his Simple Life Records a major player. He urges young entrepreneurs to "define the limitations that you are bound by, and work like hell to overcome them." Ironically, Lee was able to sign young artists to his label by playing up one quality they both shared: their youth.
3. Be willing to acquire more experience.
Another student of mine, Wynn Xiao Wu, 25, is a serial entrepreneur who found it difficult to get going with one of his ventures despite previous successes. He founded a startup to develop and market LED-based gadgets when he was 19 and a café on his college campus when he was 20. While studying in Beijing last year, he teamed with other students to start a social-networking Web site, www.tontong.com.
Wu and his Chinese partners found it hard to find experienced mentors, be taken seriously by customers and potential partners, and raise money. Dealing with older employees was especially difficult given that Chinese culture requires young people to show respect to elders. And he says it was almost impossible to navigate the Chinese bureaucracy.
His solution to the hurdles he experienced? Learning the skills he lacked by going back to school. After completing his bachelor's degree, Wynn Xiao Wu joined Duke University's Engineering Management program to acquire more business and engineering management skills. As soon as he finishes, Wu plans on returning to China to pursue his entrepreneurial dreams, equipped with new confidence and credibility.
4. Get ready to act mature.
Jon Thomas, 24, was the youngest team member of a medical-device startup spun off from Stanford's biodesign program. When he joined Stanford on a teaching-assistant fellowship, he tried to act older than his age to gain the respect of other students. He says this ability came naturally to him partially because his brother is four years older than him, and he often hung out with his brothers' friends rather than people his own age.
Today, he is a co-founder and lead developer at Vascular Precision, where he hopes to make improvements in the way in which endovascular procedures are performed. He says the only problems he faces are when potential investors find out how old he is. Those are the situations when he always seems to be on the defensive, so he tries to avoid mentioning his age until the end of a meeting. He says that "if it were the first thing that was discussed, then it might interfere with their ability to remain unbiased as they hear our pitch."
All of these young entrepreneurs agree that entrepreneurship is an incredible experience but warn that there are no guarantees of success at any age. To succeed, they say, you need to weather rejection and keep at your goal until you get it right. The advantage of starting young is that you have more time to learn and grow.