From the June 2002 issue of Startups

"Oh, that's so cute," replies a kind businesswoman, responding to your description of your company. An irritating response when you're trying to be taken seriously in a business world wary of young dreamers. If you find yourself in this type of situation more often than not, there are several things you can do not only to be taken seriously, but also to actually use your youth to a business advantage that many of your competitors could never have.

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There are plenty of other teens out there trying to get over the age hump. Read about them here.

Don't be scared. Being timid, shy or scared is exactly the thing not to do in business meetings, conferences and the like. Don't be afraid to be yourself and promote your business just because there's a bunch of bigger people than you wearing fancy suits and sipping beverages that you're too young to drink. Charm the businesspeople around you, have business cards ready, smile, laugh, look confident, and talk into the phone with volume. For crying out loud, step up to the plate!

Talk the talk. "Uh, well, we sell, like, bikes. Real cool bikes that run good. And dude, they can do some sweet turns" is not the way to describe your bike business to prospects or business partners. Your business description needs to be concise and, more than anything, articulate. Talk less; say more. Furthermore, talking the talk means knowing the vernacular and buzz words of your industry. Have a practiced paragraph ready to spit out when networking with peers or a fine-tuned sales demo ready in presentations.

Communicate professionally. Projecting yourself as a competent businessperson via e-mail and over the phone is absolutely crucial. With e-mail, many people think this is a place where you can be sloppy with your grammar, but in fact, this is the place where you can look more professional than many other adults. Start your e-mails with "Dear Mr. Jones:" and take care to spell, capitalize and punctuate everything correctly. Sign your e-mails with a closing phrase such as "Respectfully" or "Best regards." With phone calls, rehearse what you want to say before picking up the phone. Think about the things you want to accomplish with the phone call, then take a deep breath and speak slowly and audibly.

Use your age to your advantage. Let's pretend you're trying to meet with a very busy executive--he receives at least 40 e-mails and 18 voice-mail messages a day. Out of the many people who contact him hoping for an appointment, the fact that you're a teenager separates you from the crowd, so be sure to mention your age in your message. If you use the methods described above to establish yourself as a serious businessperson so you're not shrugged off as just a kid, being young can set this busy executive to thinking he should give back and help a teenager out, perhaps remembering when he was a teen. Don't forget that there are a lot of big egos out there, so be careful when approaching other companies and older adults.

The first step in overcoming the age obstacle is eliminating the possibility of being disregarded because of your age. Once you've done that, you can leverage your youth and become a business success! Remember, if you act like you're a young, rebellious teenager, people will treat you as such. But if you act like you are an established, experienced, articulate businessperson, you will be treated accordingly.


Fourteen-year-old Ben Casnocha is founder, CEO and chairman of Comcate Inc., a San Francisco firm focused on providing technology solutions for local governments. His work has been profiled in over 50 magazines, newspapers, radio stations, TV outlets and Web sites nationwide. Got something to squawk about? Write to Casnocha at ben@comcate.com.