6 things I learnt from launching a startup as a teen

I was 17, I figured it was a good time to make my debut in the startup world. Full of ambition and armed with a talented co-founder, I set up Capturate, an online platform to help consumers connect with great photographers in their area. It failed. We didn’t make any money, and I completely neglected my A Levels at college. Despite that however, launching Capturate was genuinely one of the best things I’ve done in my life and I learnt more about business than I’ve ever learnt in the classroom.

Understanding failure

Mainly, I got completely taken over by that classic overly ambitious founder mindset. I was convinced that I was going to be driving a supercar to my lectures at 18 and sitting on my first million by 21. It’s nice to have dreams eh?

On top of that, I was sure it was only a matter of time before somebody else would come along with a version of the same product I was developing so I decided the best solution was getting the site out there as quickly as possible. Since I was in such a rush to get things off the ground, I cut a lot of corners. I didn’t spend any time doing market research or design research, I didn’t look into what I’d really need to make my idea a reality and I essentially spent my entire time winging it as I set up Capturate.

As a kid, I’d always had a fairly entrepreneurial mindset, but starting my own tuck shop in school didn’t really count as business experience. Not only that, but I didn’t have much tech experience when it came to design or development and I wasn’t the best salesman in the world either.

Along with the fact I was ambitious about the project itself, the concept for the project was also fairly ambitious. I wanted to get consumers to book photographers online — something people have never really done before. I was trying to bring a fragmented market together in a way I could capitalise on, which is a challenge for even the most experienced entrepreneurs.

Age was both a blessing and a curse. There’s this great thing attached to setting up a business when you’re as young as I was, because everyone thinks it’s an incredible thing. You could run the worst business in the world and people would still hail you as a great entrepreneur because you’re “starting so young” and they “wish they’d been doing the same at your age”. From a PR stance, being 17 was a great perk because it gets the attention of most people.

On the flip side of that coin, there’s the issue of credibility. A lot of people in business will simply refuse to take you seriously and you have to work 10 times harder than anyone else just to get somebody to listen to your pitch without dismissing you straight away. I also found age to be a problem when it came to legal things like setting up a business banking account — something you’re not allowed to do under 18 in the UK. In fact, the only way I got around this was by convincing the bank manager to set up the account without an overdraft (against their normal practices) and by having a co-founder who was a lot older than I was.

I don’t think age was my real stumbling block — I don’t really believe in defining a person’s ability based on when they were born, but I think maturity and experience is always a key factor. Luckily, I was fairly mature for my age and most people assumed I was much older than I really was but I was clueless about most things to do with business.

So here’s my conclusion, here are the things I learnt most from starting up as a teen.

  1. We all have to start somewhere! I might have got things wrong at Capturate but I learnt what not to do and 3 years later, I’m in a much better position to launch scalable and profitable concepts. Don’t be afraid to just try something, it’s a learning curve — and if you’re really lucky, that millionaire by 21 dream might actually come true.
  2. Think about launching a business like launching a new design for a product. Start simple, think about whether your concept is solving a problem for consumers, think about whether you’re providing value and whether you’re different from the competition. Importantly, think about how you’re going to make money from the concept and what it’s going to take to get to the stage where you take home your first paycheck.
  3. Don’t rush things, but launch as soon as you’ve developed something that works. So many startups suffer from a kind of early stage paralysis where they obsess over tiny details and put off launching — all the time, they could have already put their product out there and started making money and gathering customer feedback and what they’re doing right and what they need to work on.
  4. Bootstrapping doesn’t really mean setting up your business for free! Actually, it means investing all your time and probably your soul to your startup. If you’ve got other important responsibilities, like a job, or studies, it’s probably a good idea to make sure you think hard about your priorities. I ended up taking an extra year at college to repair my grades after basically attending less than half of my lectures during my first year running my startup.
  5. Be careful about launching if you don’t have the skills to make things work. If you’re setting up a tech company and you don’t have any tech skills, any sales skills or even a great aptitude for leadership, what are you really there for? Your team will quickly see you as hindrance and even though your company might do well, you could get pushed out. This also brings us to think about co-founders — anyone you bring into the business should have skills you really need to bring to the table but make sure you do your research and ensure they’ve got all the skills they say they do — if they don’t, it could turn into an expensive headache later on when you need them to do something and they can’t deliver.
  6. Avoid giving away 99% of your company to people who can help your business get off the ground. Paying people in shares might seem like a good way to get things for free early on, but it can end up becoming a much more expensive option further down the line.

So there you have it. Don’t ever be afraid to launch a business young, but do make sure you do some research first — no matter how eager you are to get started, and think about how you’ll manage the time it takes to run. Entrepreneurship is a powerful way to pick up skills and experience that can otherwise be inaccessible, it looks good on a CV, but mostly, it’s usually a lot of fun. So embrace it, but do so with caution. If you fail — figure out what went wrong and how to grow from it. If it takes off, go easy on the margaritas.