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.
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 my partner and I launched PetFlow.com, getting industry vendors to sell us product was a battle. Our money was just as good as our competitors', but PetFlow didn't have the same track record, so the representatives refused to sell to us. Things turned around when I befriended a seasoned expert who opened up stubborn vendors to PetFlow. In return, I coached him on social, lead-generation, and media buying.
Start with a Virtual Office
A massive loft makes a cool office space, but commercial rent is typically a heavy cost for many startups to bear. By running a virtual office, you'll give your company the chance to mature.
With an 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. I ran a business for three years without meeting my employees or customers in person, and it worked well because it allowed me 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 to turn to for advice, but also a valuable contact that opens doors within your industry and vouches for your credibility when banks, vendors, and/or customers come calling.
Landing the perfect mentor will take perseverance. In my case, I hounded the top startup attorney in Manhattan until he agreed to represent my startup. He quickly became my go-to advisor, provided excellent references for credit, and, most importantly, he was my most vocal cheerleader within the VC community (which was instrumental in our first $12M 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 and build something from scratch. I know how challenging and rewarding this can be. When you dive into the startup scene, the 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.