From the January 1998 issue of Entrepreneur

When Ryan Smith and Mike Fridgen founded Seattle-based International Student Tours last January, they had no idea their ages would be a major hurdle. In those early days, credibility was a big problem for Smith, 24, and Fridgen, 22. The partners, along with their staff of 35 (all aged 25 or younger), provide escorted spring break and graduation trips to Mexico and Hawaii for high school and college students in the Northwest.

"In Mexico, we would meet with hotel managers to set up contracts and weren't taken seriously," says Fridgen, the company's president. "We ended up bringing in an older advisor to participate in the negotiations with us."

While youthful business owners are par for the course in the high-tech industry, young entrepreneurs in other industries often face age-related problems ranging from credibility to getting carded in front of customers.

Avoiding these problems requires projecting the proper image, says Dianna Pfaff-Martin, founder and president of California Image Advisors, a Newport Beach, California, image, training and development company. "Now that you're the president of a company, you are perceived as successful," she says.

That means acting like a successful person. "Successful people know they bring value to a company and have a strong sense of self," says Pfaff-Martin. They are deliberate, logical and direct when discussing how their product or service can make a difference.

Successful people prepare ahead of time, continues Pfaff-Martin. "If they are going to entertain at a restaurant, for example, they'll visit in advance, introduce themselves and say upfront, `I'm a young entrepreneur entertaining business clients and I'm frequently carded. I'd like to show you my driver's license now to avoid potential embarrassment [later].' "

Your body language can also lead to problems, says Pfaff-Martin. Here's how:

  • Clenching your hands advertises your nervousness.
  • Sitting arrow-straight with both feet on the floor makes you appear nervous and makes others uncomfortable.
  • Using flailing hand gestures or talking in a high-pitched, rapid-fire voice displays a lack of confidence.

Fine-tuning your image and appearing successful to prospects will help you win new clients, says Pfaff-Martin--and can help demolish age-related roadblocks.

The Natural

They're hip, they're hot . . . they're hemp. That's one way to describe the stylish line of baseball caps entrepreneur Mitch Cahn creates as the owner of the Jersey City, New Jersey-based hemp headwear and clothing company Headcase. "As far as our market share in the baseball cap industry goes, it's really low," says Cahn, 30. "But the people who buy our hats end up wearing them all the time."

Such strong customer loyalty is undoubtedly due, at least in part, to the fact that Headcase's caps are indeed manufactured out of hemp--a strong, natural, environmentally-friendly fiber. "At the time we started," says Cahn, "nobody else was making anything out of hemp."

As he points out, however, Cahn didn't launch Headcase in 1992 with the intention of becoming a hemp advocate--that was something that happened along the way. Instead, the former Wall Street financial analyst headed into the baseball cap business after his father tipped him off to an auction sale of a defunct cap company. Five years later, Headcase took in nearly $3 million in sales. This year, that number is projected to jump to $5 million.

Sold in clothing boutiques and eco-stores throughout the world, Headcase's distinctive line of caps and T-shirts feature such head-turning commentary as "Hemp Wanted" and "Warning: Do Not Smoke This Cap." Says Cahn, "We like to focus on designs that are subtly subversive."

Contact Sources

California Image Advisors, (714) 759-3646, caimage@earthlink.net

Headcase, (888) HEADCASE, http://headcase.com

International Student Tours, (888) 524-4408