Justin Lafazan isn't your average entrepreneur. He was accepted into the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania and deferred admission one 'gap year' to explore business passions. He has since founded Millennial Marketing Strategy, a full-service digital strategy firm, and worked with organizations including SXSW, Morgan Stanley, USA Today, as well as countless entrepreneurs. He's a forthcoming author and a TEDx and corporate speaker on the topics of entrepreneurship, life design, education gaps, and digital strategy.
All of this would be impressive for a 40 year-old, but Lafazan just turned 19.
"I wanted to be an entrepreneur long before I wanted to run a company," says Lafazan. "From an early age, I wanted something different than what was currently offered; I yearned to create opportunities and solve problems." He was unhappy with the status quo: the way classes were run, the college admissions process, the way brands wanted to reach his generation, the way entrepreneurs helped each other, and on the list goes on. As a result, he deferred admission to Wharton, as he wanted something different.
"The most overlooked advantage of being a young entrepreneur is easy access to mentorship," says Lafazan. "My cold emails get through when yours don't," he shares, admitting that he's lucky in this regard.
So many organizations, individuals, and communities want to see younger individuals be successfuly in business and entrepreneurship and are willing to give their time, money, and energy to help. In fact, it constantly astounds Lafazan how he offers to pay for lunch, but the other party consistently offers to pick up the check. Even when he's the one who makes the request to take a potential mentor out.
Being young offers Lafazan a vital experimentation period - a time to figure out what the best uses of his time and what his calling might be. As a young entrepreneur, he's allowed to fail in a way that more experienced entrepreneurs cannot. He doesn't have a family that relies on him, which frees him from worrying about a corporate job he can't afford to lose. "Because of my ability to fail, I can take giant risks," he admits. "I'm attempting to host the premier conference for young change makers, and the only funding behind it is me - but I'm allowed to take that financial risk because of my age." If he fails, he figures, his backup is heading back to math class with his peer group- in which case he'll essentially be right back on track. It's a win-win, because while he can always fall back on the college plan. But, right now he's in a position to learn business skills he wouldn't be able to refine in college.
From the above, no one should get the impression that life is close to perfect for a 19 year-old entrepreneur; in fact, far from it. Lafazan runs the risk that some might not take him seriously on account of his age. Many organizations and individuals place a whole lot of trust in him, true, but there certainly are exceptions. "For every client I develop, there is a CEO that has laughed at my proposal because I didn't have a college degree. But I don't give it thought, because times are changing." When an exec listens to the reasons why Lafazan didn't wait for college, or why he's so driven at a young age, they come around. Sometimes.
His energy allows him to diversify better than a senior entrepreneur might. "I'm more diversified. I'm taking big risks, and if one of them fails, I have other projects that I love - I'm not wiped out or ruined because of the downfall of an organization I head. I'm safer, smarter, and better when working on multiple projects.
"Am I better rested?" He laughs. "Hell no! But I'm 19, so who cares. Is college important? Absolutely. Is experience important? Even more so." But to Lafazan and many others, those shouldn't be the only two parameters that matter.
"When I first deferred my admission, people assumed I was crazy, stupid, or both. Now, they think I'm brilliantly crazy, stupid, or both." Young entrepreneurship has been both an adventure and "the best decision I have ever made" says to Lafazan. The question that served as his impetus for deferring school was this: will college get you closer or further away from your goals? Most of today's colleges offer substantial resources to young entrepreneurs, so many aspiring startup founders will benefit from a campus environment. Others, however, might feel that they need more flexibility - time, location, and so on.
"You don't have to have it all figured out," advises Lafazan. Your plans are subject to change. After all, the company that was front and center in his Evernote file for his gap year plans is far from top of mine now. "Just wanting to take time off or drop out because of an entrepreneurial venture does not mean that you will have the success you planned. Time off is more about the entrepreneur than about the project."
"Don't do it because it's sexy," stresses Lafazan. In some circles, it might feel cool to drop out of a university to work on a startup. But if someone does it for the storyline alone, "you'll last all of 3 days. Do it because you can't imagine doing anything else. Do it because you want to create opportunities and solve problems, and want something that isn't currently offered. Do it to disrupt the status quo."