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How Young Entrepreneurs Can Bridge the Generation Gap

Three strategies for overcoming age bias when starting a business.

You could start a business, lasso funding and already have top-tier clients, but, because you're young, some people still won't take you seriously. What's worse, some may even try to take advantage of your youth.

Having co-owned a series of businesses with my brother since I was 7 years old -- we sold stunt airplanes at a festival with my grandfather -- I've seen my share of that kind of discrimination. For our first decent-sized venture out of school, we purchased a struggling pool hall in Vancouver, B.C., which we bootstrapped with money that we had earned with a few small, successful business ventures we launched during high school. Although we eventually turned the place into a thriving hot spot, we faced a number of challenges along the way. From the initial purchase transaction to setting up accounts with vendors, we learned quickly to be on guard from people who assumed we didn't have to be taken seriously or that they could "play" us because of our youth.

One situation that stands out happened when we were hiring a contractor to perform renovations for the bar. The first guy we contacted for a bid met with me at the pool hall. He had sized me up as young and naïve, before I even opened my mouth. After asking me to get my boss, he was clearly surprised -- and a little amused, if I'm not mistaken -- when I told him that it was me. The encounter went downhill from there.

Not only did he try to tell me we needed completely unnecessary (and overpriced) repairs, he had the nerve to say we had to pay in full for the work and materials up front. "That's just the way it's done," he said. Needless to say, he didn't get the job, but, to his credit, he prepared me for what I'd be up against time and again throughout my younger days as an entrepreneur. I quickly learned that I'd need to step up my game to be recognized and respected as a "real" business person.

So, how did I do it? Here are three strategies I used to bridge the generation gap, and you can too:

1. Know what you're talking about. If you're "winging it," people can tell, and, perhaps justifiably, they won't take you seriously. To elicit the opposite response, you should learn everything you can about your industry -- and your own product or service -- so you can speak clearly and authoritatively about your business. If you're also professional with everyone from vendors to employees to customers, you're bound to be seen in a better light. Once my brother and I learned everything we could about pool halls, we were able to communicate with beverage distributors, equipment manufacturers and food suppliers in their own language. That effort made all the difference. We took away their excuse to treat us differently than their other clients.

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2. Admit that you don't know everything. Many young entrepreneurs try to overcompensate for inexperience by talking as though they've got it all figured out. The only thing worse than not knowing all you should know is not knowing, and then acting like you do. There's certainly nothing wrong with confidence, but admitting that you don't know something and asking for help shows integrity, which can't be underestimated. To help you figure things out, I encourage all young entrepreneurs to find a mentor to learn from and bounce ideas off of. This person can be a more seasoned entrepreneur than yourself or simply a business person who has expertise in your industry. It was our grandfather who recognized that my brother and I had a hunger for entrepreneurship. He helped guide us through some of the basic principles of entrepreneurship, showing us what it means to be an entrepreneur. I remember him telling us that an entrepreneur does anything and everything that needs to get done. That’s a lesson that has stuck with us to this day.

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3. Clean up. People judge others by the way they present themselves -- how they look, how they dress and how they speak. It might be the latest style to wear eight piercings in your face and your pants around your thighs. But while this look might impress your friends, it's likely to repel adult vendors, customers, and potential mentors. Is that "fair"? We can debate that point all day long, but it won't change the fact that superficial judgments take place virtually every time we meet someone.

That’s not to say that individuality isn't important. So, let me clarify: I'm not talking about acting like someone you aren't. I'm simply saying that you already have built-in obstacles to overcome as a young entrepreneur, and you can amplify those challenges by dressing, talking and acting like your favorite rock star. My brother and I didn't dress in suits every day by any means, but we made sure we presented ourselves as professionals who took business seriously. As an entrepreneur, the key is to standout as unique because you've got it together, rather than standing out for less desirable reasons.

The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.

Matthew Toren is a serial entrepreneur, mentor, investor and co-founder of YoungEntrepreneur.com. He is co-author, with his brother Adam, of Kidpreneurs and Small Business, BIG Vision: Lessons on How to Dominate Your Market from Self-Made Entrepreneurs Who Did it Right (Wiley). He's based in Vancouver, B.C.

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