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The Young Entrepreneur's Generation Gap Challenge

Here are three tips that will serve you well when dealing with an age bully.
November 11, 2010
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/217515
Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg
(CC) Brian Solis, www.briansolis.com / bub.blicio.us / CC-BY

Many young entrepreneurs face a bias from prospective customers or other dealmakers who make assumptions about maturity, business acumen and intellect based on their age. A scene from The Social Network, the movie about the founding of Facebook, captured the conflict well.

Mark Zuckerberg, the film's main character and 20-something founder of the wildly successful company, gazes out a window in deep thought, unrelated to his immediate predicament, as he is addressed by an older attorney in a deposition. Failing to get his attention, the older man is clearly upset. The patronizing patter is likely familiar to generations of young entrepreneurs.

Lawyer: Do you think I deserve your full attention? 

Mark Zuckerberg: I had to swear an oath before we began this deposition, and I don't want to perjure myself, so I have a legal obligation to say no. 

Lawyer: Okay -- no. You don't think I deserve your attention. 

Mark Zuckerberg: If your clients want to sit on my shoulders and call themselves tall, they have the right to give it a try. But there's no requirement that I enjoy sitting here listening to people lie. You have part of my attention -- the minimum amount. The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook, where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing. Did I adequately answer your condescending question?

Fact or fiction aside, this scene is a reminder that young entrepreneurs need to be on top of their game when it comes to selling to, relating to, and negotiating with older professionals and businesspeople. Here are three tips that will serve you well when dealing with an age bully.

  1. Hold your ground. If you know you're right, don't let anyone bully you simply because they are older than you. Hold your ground and show them the same level of courtesy. Being told you are wrong or that you need "someone else's help” to truly realize your vision is a tactic others use to try to weaken your position and strengthen theirs. Learn the difference between those who add value and those who simply want the value you offer. 
  2. Don’t waste your time. Establish your value and track record at the start of any meeting, but avoid appearing conceited or pompous. If the person across the table from you is too egotistical or elitist to accept you as an equal, understand your value and be courteous. They are not worth your time -- no matter what they say (or you think) they bring to the table. 
  3. Bring gray-haired backup. The best way to soften up a lead or negotiation is by bringing someone with whom older generations can see eye-to-eye. Is this a sign of weakness? Can you not handle your own business yourself? Quite the contrary. It allows you to manipulate the situation to your advantage.

Respect is born out of track record and accomplishment, not age, profession or title. Age is never a reason to kowtow to opposition -- ever. Business is business. If the other side doesn't understand this principle -- or foolishly underestimates your abilities -- walk out the door. Don't worry; chances are they'll leave you a few messages when you're successful later on -- which you'll be sure to never return.