Choosing a Major
Q: I am college student, and I want to start my own business eventually. What major would be best for a future entrepreneur?
A: I'm not sure there is any one that would be best. As an undergraduate, you can major in just about anything. I majored in electrical engineering, then worked for a big company as a software developer, then a manager, then became an entrepreneur with a software development start-up, so my engineering background helped a lot. I know lots of entrepreneurs who have business-related or marketing degrees. So much of this depends on the person.
If you are a very technical person, I'd consider getting an engineering or computer science degree as a base. If not, a marketing degree would serve you very well-many entrepreneurs are very weak in marketing. A lot depends on your personality: If you are the kind of person who would do well in engineering, for example, the attributes that allow you to focus on one thing for a long time probably aren't great for schmoozing people (an important sales skill), and vice versa-most salespeople would have a very hard time spending much time in front of a PC.
Q: I am trying to start a business in the automotive sales and performance industry. I have done a lot of research on obtaining my Florida dealer's license and plan to buy and sell cars as one business while using that location to open an automotive performance shop. Here are the two problems I continue to run into: 1) I am 19 years old, and 2) I don't have a lot of upfront capital or assets to pledge for equity. How can I get the start-up financing I need? I am looking for less than $50,000. My partner is 20 years old and has less debt and a better credit score than me.
A: I'm not an expert on microloans, but that might be a good way to go if it is open to you. Unfortunately, as you probably expect, there isn't an easy answer to this. Because of your age, most people will assume that you are going to make a lot of mistakes before you get good at your business. Probably the best bet for you and your partner is to start out small and bootstrap yourself. Get your dealer's license (that doesn't cost much); buy a few cars on credit; and, after you sell them, put the profits back into buying more. Eventually you'll establish yourself, and credit will start to be easier to get.
Another option is to try to find a store or car lot that someone wants to get out of. There was a lot in my town recently where the guy had several cars and maybe 10 more on consignment, and he needed to move out of town so he was going to let the whole thing (including the office and equipment) go for something like $30,000. If you can find a good deal like that, that might give you your start.
One last tip: Go to our new online magazine for teens, TeenStartUps.com. You'll find a lot of helpful advice for people like you trying to overcome the age barrier and get financing for their start-ups.
Sorry I couldn't be more helpful, but you should understand the reality. Don't let this hold you back, though-keep pushing ahead and you'll make it!
I'm Young...Really Young
Q: I'm a 12-year-old Bill Gates. I love making money. But I just need some simple advice on starting a business. I know I can't go overboard at my age-I hate those child labor laws. They hold me back from making money on something larger than a lemonade stand! But if you can advise me, and kind of guide me through the steps, I would surely appreciate it.
A: I like your attitude. You are right that your age will hold you back a bit, but don't let that get you down. I became an entrepreneur reasonably late in life (from your perspective anyway) at age 32. I have sometimes thought back and regretted not preparing myself more-I didn't even know I was going to be an entrepreneur until just before I quit my job and dove in.
If I were 12 years old again, here is what I'd do. I'd take the long-term view and plan my entrepreneurial career. I'd educate the heck out of myself. I'd read magazines like Entrepreneur and Web sites like Entrepreneur.com (which, by the way includes the teen-focused TeenStartUps.com). I'd listen to audio tapes from people like Zig Zigler, Brian Tracy and Michael Gerber. I'd take classes that helped build my knowledge base. I'd not worry too much about my age and about its limitations. I'd do a lot of research on the Internet and find out what other young entrepreneurs are doing. I'd get part-time jobs in small companies and offer to do anything to learn how to do various tasks. If you do all these things, you'll be way ahead of everyone else when it is time to select a major in college.
I Want a Business Now
Q: I am a student working toward my business management degree. I am extremely interested in owning my own business. My ultimate goal is to own/operate my own resort. Obviously, I don't have the time or money for that right now, but I really want to start my own business immediately. I am extremely interested in public safety; I know the field really well. Do you think there is something I can do part time, selling the equipment or somehow making my own business out of it?
A: One of the hard lessons that I've learned in my life (at the expense of a lot of time, effort and money) is that experience is way more important than I had ever thought. When I got out of college, I worked as an engineer and a manager for 10 years, never thinking about becoming an entrepreneur. When I did become one, I really had to start from scratch, and therefore I had to make a lot more mistakes than I would have if I'd been preparing for that all along.
So I'd ask you to think about a few things. First, get as much practical experience as possible on someone else's dime. Find a job, and when you are looking for that job, don't make salary, vacation time or benefits your primary concern-look for something that will give you the training and experience you need to go out on your own.
If the desire to be on your own is too great to spend the time to establish a skill base (or if you already have some business skills or experience), then I'd recommend you start something part time and see what success you can have while you finish your degree. That would be a great proving ground, and if the first or second thing you tried didn't work out, keep looking-you'll find something that does.
Without knowing a lot more details, it's difficult to give specific advice, but I think you are on the right track with the thought of testing your sales skills with a product before diving in to something more major.
Keith Lowe is a principal of Pretium Capital Group, a boutique investment bank in Huntsville, Alabama. Keith also mentors new entrepreneurs; serves as chairman of the board for Biztech, a nonprofit high-technology business incubator; and is a co-founder and officer for the Alabama Information Technology Association.