5 Survival Tips for Young Entrepreneurs
Today, it’s completely normal to meet founders in their twenties and thirties — you might even come across the occasional teenage CEO. It’s an exciting career path with opportunities at every turn. No wonder more and more young people want to pour their time and talent into launching their own startups.
Since the age of 16, I’ve founded five successful businesses, but I had to work twice as hard to be taken seriously by employees, clients, and financiers. Now, with 20 years of experience under my belt, I know what it takes to survive — and thrive — as a young entrepreneur.
Raise Funding, Debt, VC, or PE
Securing the backing of a well-established financial firm is like a seal of approval on your business. When you’re raising money from any institutional investors, whether it’s a bank, venture capital or private equity, due diligence can take 60 to 90 days. Trust me, they lift every rock when vetting you — they will talk to your partners, your vendors, and your employees.
We once discovered that a private equity firm had hired investigators to track our movements and relationships. Fortunately, they found that we were a promising company with a good track record. Why does this matter? When you finally close that round of financing, it’s not just about saying you were able to raise money. It also demonstrates the strength of your business because you’ve survived the grueling due diligence process.
Industry veterans can feel threatened by newcomers who are keen to disrupt the status quo. But if you go in with the mindset that you’re going to replace these people, you might forgo some valuable partnerships. Instead, respect the experience of those who came before you, listen to their advice, and offer to help them with your own unique expertise. Being respectful not only helps you stand out among your peers, but also converts industry leaders into a much-needed support network.
When we launched PetFlow.com, getting industry vendors to sell us product was a battle. Our money was just as good as our older competitors’, but our company didn’t have the same track record, so the representatives refused to sell to us. Things only turned around when we befriended a seasoned market expert who helped open up stubborn vendors to our company. In return, we coached him on social, lead-generation, and media buying. Quid pro quo at its best.
Start with a Virtual Office
A massive loft makes a cool office space, but commercial rent in a big city is a heavy cost for many startups to bear. By running a virtual office, you’ll give your company the chance to mature.
With a solid Internet connection and innovative tools like Slack and Call Ruby, you can manage your business from your laptop until you’re ready to open your HQ. It may sound odd, but I ran a business for three years without meeting my employees or my customers in person, and it worked really well because it allowed us to keep overhead costs down and hire people in less expensive cities. Technology empowers companies to adopt a more decentralized model — why not take advantage of it?
Seek Out a Mentor
You probably picture entrepreneurs as serial risk takers who aren’t afraid to go it alone, but a mentor’s guidance can make a huge difference in your career. A mentor isn’t just a more established professional that you turn to for advice, but also a valuable contact that opens doors within your industry and vouches for your credibility when banks, vendors, or customers come calling.
Landing the perfect mentor may take a little perseverance. In my case, I hounded the top startup attorney in New York City until he agreed to represent my startup. He quickly became our go-to advisor, provided excellent references for credit, and, most importantly, he was our most vocal cheerleader within the VC community (which was instrumental in our first $12MM raise).
Dress the Part
Our generation has grown accustomed to casual dress codes, especially in tech, so this may seem unimportant compared to your skills and ideas. But when you’re still a young nobody who’s hoping to be taken seriously, it’s better to err on the side of caution — let people focus on your business acumen rather than your sneakers. You don’t have to emulate Don Draper’s style, but remember that your clothes, shoes, watch, and even hairstyle all play a role in projecting success and inspiring confidence.
Entrepreneurship is a chance to turn your vision into reality, to build something of your own from the ground up. I know first hand how challenging and rewarding this can be. When you dive into the startup scene, the hard truth is that you’ll face brutal competition, and you’ll probably encounter people who doubt your abilities. But if you’re wholeheartedly committed, there’s no reason your age should hold you back.
Joe Speiser is the Co-Founder of LittleThings.com. A serial entrepreneur, he exited his last ad-tech startup to private equity, and went on to launch PetFlow, a pioneer in subscription-based ecommerce. In 2014, Joe co-founded the feel-good, uplifting media property, LittleThings.com, which has grown to more than 45 million unique monthly visitors and continues to inspire millions daily.