Combating Reverse Ageism as a Young Entrepreneur
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I'm not sure if this is something to be proud of or to sulk over, but I've officially graduated from being a young entrepreneur to a not-so-young one. Over the past decade since founding our company, I've navigated through two critical stages of entrepreneurship, making many mistakes and learning a lot of lessons along the way. The first stage was the young and inexperienced stage, and the second and more recent, the middle-aged and established stage.
When starting out in business as a young entrepreneur, your age is often a major obstacle to overcome. Competitors will take shots at your inexperience, peers will bet against you and clients will often choose to do business with service providers that are safer bets.
However, if you play your cards right you can actually use your youth and inexperience to your advantage. Here are some lessons I learned from my younger days in business that can help you overcome challenges you're facing when it comes to age and inexperience.
Make youth your differentiator.
In the early days of our business, I remember making it to the final stage of so many new business deals and client pitches, only to lose them because of my age and inexperience. Many long and grueling pitch processes ended with a rejection email that looked something like this:
"Matt, we loved N6A and your energy, but we've decided to go with a firm that has been in business longer and one that has a more experienced leadership team."
While it was flattering that we made it to the final stage, the end result was a big fat loss. Where I come from, you don't get any points for being runner-up.
Fed up with finishing second, I decided that rather than go toe-to-toe with older, more established competitors, I'd make age our differentiator.
In these early days, I read several studies that analyzed the most successful traits of entrepreneurs. The common threads in all of the studies were traits such as persistence, creativity, self-belief, integrity, innovation and optimism. What trait was missing from these studies? Age. I quickly learned that there was no correlation between age and successful entrepreneurism.
From that point forward we brought our youth into the pitch process early on and embraced our drive and vibrance as a differentiator. While we might not have had decades in business, we did have something that most of our larger, older competitors couldn't offer: energy, hunger and something to prove.
A big turning point for our business, prospective clients now told us that they appreciated our candor, our sense of purpose and the fact that we had something to prove. While we didn't close every deal, we did find that we were much more successful because we used our age to our advantage and made it part of our differentiators.
Do you want to celebrate being one of 20, or chase being one of one?
Only 18 percent of first-time business owners succeed in their debut entrepreneurial venture. The odds of making it to the next level as an entrepreneur -- achieving scale and sustainability -- are even rarer.
The bottom line? The odds are stacked against you as a young entrepreneur. Don't be intimidated by this, however. Use this as an opportunity to motivate you and to drive you to reach the next level.
Nearly a decade ago when I was putting the finishing touches on our first year of business, I was introduced to an older, well-respected gentleman who ran a successful consulting firm. I was looking for some advice on how to scale to the next level, and he was kind enough to take me out to dinner.
He said that out of 100 entrepreneurs who tried to do what I did in their first year, maybe 20 of them would have succeeded. "Congratulations, you are one of 20," he said. I immediately asked him what it would take to get to the next level, and he said that of those 20 entrepreneurs, only about 10 would get there.
He offered me advice on what it would take to be successful at the next level -- hiring, infrastructure, delegation and cost structure -- things that weren't even a blip on my radar that would suddenly become a necessity to scale to the "one of 10" stage. I spent the next year listening to his advice, and our company became "one of 10."
The following year, he told me what it would take to get to the "one of five" stage -- innovation, risk assessment, financial discipline and P&L management. Now, almost a decade later, we still meet for dinner each year and discuss surpassing each stage and what it will take to scale and improve even further.
While many older business leaders are set in their ways, embrace your age and use your inexperience to your advantage. Young entrepreneurship is all about learning, listening, and chasing the next level of accomplishment rather than patting yourself on the back for reaching the first level.
Do some crazy shit.
Chances are, if you're an entrepreneur faced with age barriers, you're going to have to do some crazy stuff to make yourself stand out. Any questions or concerns that prospects might have about your age that can't be overcome during the pitch process can likely be overcome during the decision-making process with effort, desire and a personalized approach.
I was 28 years old, our company was just a few years in business, and we were a finalist for a client account up against an agency that was much more established and proven than we were. I knew we wouldn't close the deal based on our merits as a business, so we had to show more effort and desire than our competitor.
The department to which we were pitching business was based in the United States, but the CEO was based in Europe.
As I thought about what we could do to stand out and win the account, I remembered a study I once read which analyzed customer satisfaction and tip values for a group of waiters at various restaurants. The waiters who ended the meal experience proactively by offering mints and other personalized items for their customers got up to 21 percent better tips than the ones who didn't. If something as simple as adding mints could help with customer acquisition, imagine what doing something as crazy and personalized as a cross-continent trip to visit this company's CEO would do?
Next thing I knew, I was on the first flight out, and several hours later arrived at the CEO's office with a handwritten note and a gift from New York. He was quite shocked and impressed by my commitment, and put a call into the marketing department back in the United States to tell them about the gesture.
While the move was bold and time consuming, it helped us win the account and taught me a valuable lesson: To stand out as a young entrepreneur, you're going to have to act boldly to overcome competitive challenges. Sometimes it's just a matter of showing your customers that you want it more than anyone else and are willing to put a personal touch on the customer to make it happen.
Related: 5 Priorities for Young Entrepreneurs
Seize the moments.
One distinct difference I've noticed between being a 20-something and a 30-something entrepreneur is the amount of game-changing opportunities that present themselves to you. The younger version of myself was lucky to get three or four opportunities each year with business-transforming potential, like global client prospects, new hires, breakthrough revenue generating opportunities and so on. The older, more established version of myself is presented with these same opportunities on a much more frequent basis.
I heard a story about a young Ken Langone, who was an unknown banker in the 1960s when he was presented with the opportunity to represent Ross Perot as he took Electronic Data Systems public. Langone was persistent, saw an opportunity and seized it. He parlayed this opportunity into one of the most successful IPOs of all-time, then started Home Depot, and the rest is history.
The moral of the story?
As a young entrepreneur you need to seize these moments, because you don't know when the next one will come. You cannot allow a game-changing moment to pass you by.
I was 27 years old and brand new to business when I was contacted by a global multibillion-dollar company in immediate need of a media training session for its newly appointed CEO. The company had searched far and wide for bigger competitors who were more established and had proven media training programs in place, but the bigger competitors couldn't accommodate the client's quick turnaround project request fast enough.
Timing and circumstance led the company to put a call into me, an unproven 20-something who was less than a year into starting a business. We had no media training experience or formalized offering to speak of at the time, yet the company hired us on the spot in desperation. It paid me nearly $10,000 for a three-hour session, flew my wife and I first-class to its headquarters in Florida, and put us in an upscale hotel with a breathtaking ocean view. I had never experienced anything like it, but nevertheless found myself en route to a blue-chip global company's headquarters with the opportunity of a lifetime.
Despite any insecurities or pressure I felt by the opportunity, I studied hard, prepared well and put my bravest face on. The end result was a very successful training session, and the client then hired us as its full-time agency the next week. We converted the one-time training session into a recurring revenue opportunity that changed the trajectory of our entire business -- this became a multi-year relationship with a signature client that helped us take our business to the next level, and it all began because we seized one of the very few game-changing moments that we were presented with back in the early days.
Results are the great equalizer.
Here's the cold, hard truth you need to know as a young entrepreneur: Ultimately, your results will speak for themselves. It will take some time to build your reputation, and you'll likely make some mistakes along the way. However, you will get to a point quickly when you realize that your results will be the great equalizer.
When you're first starting out as a young entrepreneur, the playing field seems like it's unfairly tipped in favor of the older, more established competitors; but you will see how quickly that changes if you can deliver results.
As a young entrepreneur, I was flabbergasted by the amount of companies that prioritized strategy over execution. The Economist published a report finding that only 56 percent of businesses were successful in delivering results based on their strategic initiatives. Sure, strategy is important. But, at the end of the day, isn't it all about results and execution when you're first starting out?
You simply cannot afford to squander opportunities in your early days as an entrepreneur. You need to establish a track record of dependability and production early on. You need to be seen as guaranteed money -- a bet that people want to make because they know that you will always deliver for them.
Ask yourself this question: Would you rather be a 55-year-old who doesn't deliver, or a 25-year-old who always delivers? It's an easy answer, and chances are your customers will feel the same way once you've shown them you know how to deliver. Don't forget, results don't discriminate against age, and you are ultimately in control of your results. As a young entrepreneur you should take results over strategy every day of the week.