“Pick a Millennial-Friendly Industry” The 5 Lessons I Learned Being a 20-Something Founder

I had the pleasure of interviewing Nicholas DeNuccio, the 23-year-old CEO of Propaganda Premium E-Liquid based in Irvine, CA. DeNuccio founded the company in March 2014 with $200 and a clear goal: to become one of the top-selling e-liquid brands in the industry. At the advanced age of 18, he spent hours on research and design to develop flavors featuring high-quality ingredients at the just the right percentages to create the coveted “all-day vape.” Today, Propaganda manufactures and distributes five distinct e-liquid lines to 5,000+ US vape shops and 40 countries around the world.

Jean: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory” of how you become a founder?

It was January 2014 and I was about to start a new semester of college. I was only a freshman but was already feeling restless and ready to embark on an actual career. Since my main plan was to launch and run my own company, I decided that maybe the traditional school route wasn’t necessary. I began to research potential business possibilities for a young entrepreneur like me. I quickly recognized an opportunity to capitalize on an emerging product category I was already intrigued by as a consumer: e-liquid flavors for the trending vape industry.

Once I decided on that, I recruited a partner and invested $200 in ingredients and materials purchased online. In my parents’ kitchen, the two of us spent nine months in research and design to develop three initial flavors. (Thanks, Mom and Dad — and sorry for the mess!)

When we were satisfied with our results, we launched our brand with an edgy name and a logo that reads across every platform. Then we began grassroots consumer and custom retailer/distributor campaigns. We literally went door to door to vape shops around the country. Soon, we were selling in more than 200 retailers nationwide. Everything else just grew exponentially from there.

Jean: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We’re one big millennial family and we often socialize outside of work.

Jean: Are you working on any exciting projects now?

We recently launched The Salts Collection, a brand new line featuring four of the company’s top-selling flavors in concentrated nicotine salts; they’re perfect for the rapidly trending, user-friendly small pod devices. In addition, our flavor mixologist is always experimenting with new flavor ideas. Stay tuned for an announcement soon!

Jean: Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?

Hands down, the most influential book I have ever read is How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. The book, which Carnegie wrote in the 1930s, taught me how to leave a personable impression, diffuse a tough situation, and just be more likeable in general!

Jean: What are your “5 Lessons I Learned as a Twentysomething Founder” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

Lesson 1: Pick a millennial-friendly industry. People always tell you to “follow your bliss,” which sounds like a cliché — but it totally worked for me. I was already a vape aficionado, so it made sense that I would pursue an industry that appealed to me and my fellow 20 somethings. It didn’t hurt that the vape industry was a disruptor, shaking up the long-established tobacco industry. We’re creating a whole new category of nicotine delivery options that I predict will eventually take the place of established tobacco products. Developing industries such as vaping are like the wild, wild West — with 20-something cowboys (and cowgirls) taking the place of the Marlboro Man!.

So my advice to 20somethings would be to choose an industry that’s still edgy and developing — that’s where young founders like me have a great shot at being not just accepted, but respected (because, let’s face it, we know a lot more about it than the old-timers, no offence). But let’s say your passion is finance, so perhaps the highly established banking industry is your first thought. Two ideas for you: “blockchain or cryptocurrency.” These areas of banking are brand new and therefore wide open with opportunities. The tech world in general tends to be all about disruption, of course. Fast fashion also has a lot of potential.

Lesson 2: Fake it till you make it. One thing I learned from Dale Carnegie’s classic book was the importance of exuding confidence so that others will have confidence in you, too. When you’re 20something and brand-new in business, that’s not always easy to do. That’s where the faking comes in. There are some relatively easy ways to do this, such as: look people in the eye; wear clean, pressed and industry-appropriate/professional attire; keep your hair and nails well-groomed; and drive the nicest car you can afford. Soon, you’ll truly be feeling the confidence you’re projecting, and people will take you seriously.

One of the first things I invested in, for example, was a Rolex watch. Sure, it might seem like a frivolous purchase, but it not only gave me a confidence boost, it also sent a message to potential customers that my business was doing well. In general, people want to do business with people they respect, and you have to try harder to earn it when you’re only 23.

Lesson 3: Embrace a healthy lifestyle. Forget all those crazy party scenes in movies like The Social Network. It takes a clear, sharp mind plus a lot of stamina to launch a new business, so I highly recommend giving up all the bad habits many young people get caught up in. Skip the bars, drop the drugs, join the gym and replace those fast-food binges with vitamin B-shots. (People who don’t know me may see my tats and make the wrong assumption — but their low expectationsjust give me another business advantage!)

Lesson 4: Mobilize mentors. Yes, I dropped out of college, but that doesn’t mean I ever stopped learning. Whether I was reading books by my favorite business leaders or buying lunch for small business owners I admired, I sought out inspiration and advice from a variety of mentors. I still do this. For example, my current sales and marketing mentor is Mikhail Alfon of Blue Light Media, but when I need manufacturing advice I turn to my vape industry colleague, Jeff Nelson, co-founder of California Grown E-Liquid.

Lesson 5: Surround yourself with people smarter than you. I was originally going to say, “Surround yourself with other millennials,” because that’s what worked for me. But really, it’s not the age that’s important — it’s the smarts. I seek out people who are smarter and/or more experienced than me in their respective fields of expertise. Don’t be threatened by their talents and skills; nurture them as much as possible. A successful 20something founder has the self-assurance to know what he or she doesn’t know — and knows when to hand the reins to the right person for a while.

Jean: Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)

Definitely Gary Vaynerchuk because I think of anybody out there, I would learn the most from him, especially when you only have a short amount of time to chat. I aspire to be a serial entrepreneur like him someday.

— Published on June 27, 2018