"You're too young." "You can't possibly understand the workings of this business." "Call me in a few years." These are all refrains you might be hearing as a young college entrepreneur--or they could be the words you fear you'll hear once you start up. While it's true that some people will doubt your entrepreneurial abilities simply because of your age, there are ways to pump up your respect quotient without sacrificing the excitement of being a young entrepreneur.
First, say experts, make sure you're an authority on both your business idea and the industry in which you hope to make your mark. You can never do too much homework in this area. "You've got to demonstrate that you really understand the problems, challenges and rewards of the venture you're proposing," says Stan Mandel, director of the Angell Center for Entrepreneurship at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Obtaining industry experience in any capacity will help you gain credibility, notes Mandel.
When entering a meeting with possible investors or clients, you have to look the part with your dress and demeanor. Your presentation materials, be they PowerPoint slides, business cards or a written proposal, should look professional as well. These small details will go a long way in showing that you're not only eager for their business, but ready for it as well.
Walking in completely prepared and looking the part of a successful business owner helped Jason Smith, 24, land one of his very first business deals. Having started GoSMG.com, a distributor of fundraising products and programs for schools and organizations, while in college in 2001, Smith remembers going into meetings and feeling an unspoken attitude coming from his contacts when they first met in person. "You know they're thinking 'Wow, he's a lot younger than I thought,' but they don't verbalize it," he says. "They're not saying it because it doesn't fit into the equation of the business at hand. But [I think] it's something that I instantly overcome."
Going in with that kind of confidence will also help you quell any personal concerns about your youth, says Dan Mulka, graduate advisor of the Collegiate Entrepreneurs' Association at the Grand Valley State University Center for Entrepreneurship in Grand Rapids, Michigan. "You have to be confident in yourself if you're going to sell an idea," he says. But don't be overly confident or alienate people with a young and cocky attitude, either--find the balance. Depending on your audience, you can play up the strengths and advantages of being young, because your youthful perspective will be an asset in some industries. "Some people want to give their business to someone [who is] young and doing something positive," notes Smith.
If you want to know how you're coming off in your presentations and materials, check with some trusted advisors first. To gauge what needs polishing, do a few practice runs and ask them to play devil's advocate, says Mulka.
The key to really gaining respect, says Mandel, is doing what you say you'll do and providing the absolute best product or service you can. It's true in any business, but it's especially critical to a young entrepreneur looking for credibility. Smith has made that his credo with his Brea, California, business, projecting strong six-figure sales for 2005 and $1 million in projected sales for 2006. "[People] may have misgivings about doing business with a younger person, but as soon as I talk to them face to face, they see that I know exactly what I'm doing," says Smith. "I ease any concerns they might have."