When Youth Is Not Your Friend
Excelling As An Entrepreneur Despite Ageist Assumptions
In recent years, we have seen how millennials have created some of the most notable startups of this generation, such as Facebook and Snapchat. Yet surprisingly, these successes seem to be outliers as the average age of entrepreneurs is still in the late 30s. The majority of startups, after all, are run by people with many years of experience. Clearly an advantage exists to knowing the industry well, seeing what works and what doesn't, and learning from mistakes of the past.
Would that mean that a 20-year old entrepreneur is therefore doomed to fail? While some investors believe that a track record and years of experience are predictors of future success, others see the advantages of youth and its naiveté. As a young entrepreneur myself, I can say that while I may not know as much as someone who has been in the startup world for decades, what has helped immensely is empowering myself to overlook the assumptions others will undoubtedly make about being younger in age. And, in fact, I learned that quite a few benefits actually exist to building a startup during the green and young years of one’s life.
Reframing wrong Perceptions into meaningful interactions
One of the biggest challenges for young entrepreneurs is establishing credibility and earning respect from investors, customers and partners. On the surface, youth suggests inexperience, simply because a number of well-established individuals may have had careers for as long as the few years a young entrepreneur has been alive. Looks, whether style of dress or a youthful appearance, can easily betray one’s age. When I first started building my company, for example, I would often walk into a room without being taken seriously.
We are a hardware startup and work a lot with Asian suppliers and manufacturers, and in Asia, age means even more than just experience, but authority and superiority as well. I still remember when I met the executives of a contract manufacturer for the first time to ask them if they would support our project and produce our camera. Upon entering the room, an executive’s first question was, “Is the CEO in the restroom?” or “Which part of the business are you assisting with?”
Instead of becoming upset, I would reassure the executive that the CEO was me, and that I was here to discuss the partnership. The surprise on their faces remains an image that I will never forget, but what became even more memorable was my next steps to reframe this first impression. With the element of surprise in my court, I proceeded to present myself in a confident way, listening and asking the right questions while above all, treating the executives as people often times, no matter the status or level of achievement, want to be treated. And that is with genuineness, and obviously, respect.
I often see young entrepreneurs trying too hard to fit in by becoming people-pleasers, yet if you are building a startup and exhibit a characteristic that automatically labels you an outsider or misfit, why try to make the society accept you? At the end of the day, an authentic interaction will be better received than trying too hard to make the other person like you.
Advantage of ignorance
When youth is your currency, and you are new to the startup scene, you will not know or understand as much as individuals who have been building and scaling successful businesses for the majority of their lives. A seasoned entrepreneur has learned from previous mistakes, and thus will not likely repeat what has caused so much pain in the past. Yet, since you have no recollection of past mistakes, or little to no experience building a startup, you may unintentionally do something that experienced entrepreneurs would have known to avoid or prevent.
I found myself in this situation often while building my startup from the ground up, and then learned soon afterwards that I have made a mistake, or that what I originally wanted to do was not possible. Yet this “setback” is, in a sense, a Catch-22. On one hand, due to lack of knowledge – we as young entrepreneurs can make horrible mistakes. But on the other, our apparent ignorance allows us the freedom to carve a path untraveled, new, and practice innovation in the very way in which we work. This is a valid approach to leading a startup and in some cases can lead to wild success that may not have been attainable by someone who was approaching the same opportunity with the skepticism or apprehension that comes from experience and trying to learn or not repeat past failures. When you’re young and don’t have enough experience to have gained failures (as learning opportunities) – your perspective is one that freely sees possibility where impossibility once existed. In my cases, I was more willing to attempt the impossible to make it (“the impossible”) work.
This is the exact path my youthful stage in life put me on in the very early phase of our product development. Since we build 3D VR cameras, we are considered a hardware company. However, when we first developed our prototype and pursued our first round of funding, I realized that the amount of capital that I had to raise for a traditional early-stage hardware startup, which needs two mechanical engineers, one industrial designer, three electrical engineers and four to five firmware engineers, would have been extremely high to cover the cost of salaries for these employees. Unfortunately, we just did not have the time or resources.
So early on, I bet on our strength in image processing and only kept the software team of three people, including my cofounder and CTO, while convincing a partner to support us with every other task. When telling more experienced hardware entrepreneurs that I have only one person on my team who understands hardware—me—and three other software engineers, and that we ramped up a product from concept to shipments with less than one million dollars, seasoned entrepreneurs look at me as if they saw a ghost. Of course, I took other trade-offs along the way, but overall, given our circumstances, our team chose the best path for our company at that time.
More flexible and adaptable to changes
When someone has developed a tried-and-true method for results, he or she tends to become comfortable with these practices, which over time can become old or all together obsolete. Seasoned entrepreneurs who founded multiple successful startups will likely stay in their domain expertise and continue to create great businesses the way they always have. Young startups, however, are more volatile, and often try to chase too many things at the same time, shifting their focus frequently or, as we say in the startup world, pivot. While going to the extreme can ring the alarm in any field, change and quick adaptability are keys to survival in a new emerging market such as Virtual Reality, the sector to which my company belongs. The VR market has changed drastically in the last five years with many new companies and products impacting the dynamic of the ecosystem. If you cannot adapt quickly, then you die under the pressure of quickly rising competition.
For us, we probably changed our direction hundreds of times until we found a sweet spot in the market to position and massage our product. The most crucial factor was to listen carefully to what customers kept asking for and interacting with them to learn what resonated with their needs. Therefore, we did a crowdfunding campaign to define which features are important for our product. We gave prototypes to customers for early testing and always asked for feedback to follow the ebb and flow of the changing market.
Most entrepreneurs would be afraid talking about their ideas and show as much as we did to customers. But our strategic approach rested on the premise that ideas change while people don’t, and in the middle of an evolving market, following the constancy of marketing to individuals, rather than to the allure of a great idea and its success, provided us with the edge to adapt and pace the flow of the VR industry. This method ultimately allowed us to find a strong product market fit, which drove our sales, branding and positioning in the market.
Every age brings its challenges
Being a young entrepreneur has its challenges, but so does being seasoned. Each stage in life comes with its own unique problems and risks. In my opinion, youth can be a huge advantage, as your perspective on opportunities is broader and you have the time to take a risk to either screw up (and learn from the process for your next venture), or make possible ideas others never would have tried. If you fail early in your career, you have more time to bounce back and improve on your mistakes.
By the same token, when you have clocked in your time with accrued experience, the advantage is that you will understand what works and what doesn’t, wasting no time to get the job done. So rather than comparing ourselves to others, we should instead focus on optimizing the stage where we are. At the end of the day, it is about how we see the world no matter the vantage—whether young, old or in between. Everyone faces a unique set of circumstances, and those who succeed are the ones who do not let the obstacles stop them from reaching their goals, no matter how difficult attaining them may be.
Han Jin, Contributor