3 Lessons Learned From a Young Entrepreneur’s First Pitch

3 Lessons Learned From a Young Entrepreneur’s First Pitch

Communication Pitch Preparation

When Joshua, our young entrepreneur, was 17 years old he had an opportunity to pitch his product idea to two experienced entrepreneurs who had just left a successful company to start their own development and digital marketing firm.  These guys were well known and respected in their field.  Initially, they agreed to speak with Joshua as a favor to me to help us decide whether Joshua’s app idea was viable and worth pursuing.  Joshua sent them some information on his product and business plan, and they all three eventually ended up around our kitchen table to discuss it.  They quickly realized that Joshua had done his homework.  He knew the market, the customer segments, how to implement and market the product, and he thoroughly understood the technology that would deliver the features that customers wanted.  He was prepared, and because he was, he earned their respect and got their attention with his pitch.

So what can young entrepreneurs learn from his experience?

  1. Know the product – Joshua spent hundreds of hours researching phone technology, app features, and UX/UI design before this meeting. He had the original idea when he was 15 but didn’t have the coding experience to do it himself.  As part of his pitch, he had simulated screen shots, a list of features that he knew, based on his coding and phone technology research, could be developed, and some customer data to help validate whether this was something potential customers would be interested in.
  1. Know the market – Joshua’s idea was an app that combined the features of console based first person shooter games and outdoor games like paintball and airsoft. This was a hybrid product that didn’t exactly fit in either existing market.  Instead, if successful, it could create a whole new market that combined the most popular features of games in the two existing markets.  Essentially, he had to research both markets and understand everything there was to know about crossover gamers who were active in both console and outdoor gaming.  Further, he needed to understand what it would take for gamers who played only in one market to cross over to the other.
  1. Know how to communicate your idea – Having a good idea is not enough. Lots of good ideas never see the light of day because their originators can’t create a compelling story that explains in simple terms what their product does, why it matters, and also gets customers excited about it.  Knowing your audience and hours and hours of practice are the keys to making this work.

Ultimately, the two guys Joshua pitched around our kitchen table, Joe Saumweber and Michael Paladino, the cofounders of RevUnit, liked his product idea.  They were impressed that he already knew the answers to tough questions about the product, market, and development plan.  Their confidence in Joshua’s ability to make this work grew as the conversation continued.  So much so that they eventually agreed to become cofounders in Innovis Labs and build the product with Joshua.

THE TAKEAWAY:  Despite the apparent overnight successes in startup land, there is no substitute for the hard work it takes to be successful.  Thousands of hours of research on product development, market research, pitch practice, etc . . . .  Turns out that the old saying about luck being the result of when preparation meets opportunity is actually true.  Opportunity is often serendipitous and you can’t always create it.  However, there is no excuse for not being prepared and that is completely up to us.

4 Advantages Young Entrepreneurs Have

4 Advantages Young Entrepreneurs Have

Signs of Entrepreneurship skills

I was inspired this week by an article that identified “5 Advantages Young Entrepreneurs Have Over Older Counterparts”.  Here is my take on the subject.

  1. Less Responsibility – The article points out that a young entrepreneur is less likely to have the family, children, and bills that may cause their older counterparts to think twice about starting a business. I call this “golden handcuffs”.  A marriage, kids, nice home and newer cars are all great but those things, especially the material benefits of success, can make cowards of us all.  That’s a lot to lose if things go south.  While those responsibilities are manageable when launching a startup, family and friends certainly need to be on-board, supportive and aware of the challenges ahead.  It’s one thing for me to have to eat beans and ramen noodles for weeks on end to keep expenses down, but it’s quite another to ask your family to do that.  Also, as we learned with Joshua, our entrepreneurial son, starting a company while still in high school is a bit like having two full-time jobs.  Some tough decisions have to be made about the priorities of school, business, extracurricular activities and relationships.
  1. Naivety & Risk Taking – The author states that not knowing best practices, conventional boundaries, and industry standards is freeing for young entrepreneurs. Not knowing what you don’t know can cause one to be a more creative problem solver and not be bound by conventional thinking.  However, acknowledging what you don’t know is important in decision-making and problem solving.  Naivety needs to be accompanied by an appropriate amount of risk management.  This sounds counter intuitive but failing big early in the development process may keep some young entrepreneurs from continuing to try.  Test – Learn – Repeat.
  1. More Time – The premise here is that young entrepreneurs have more time to learn and get better. I couldn’t agree more with this and I’ve written about this previously in other posts.  While starting to learn early is an advantage, being purposeful about what you are learning is critical.  Trying a bunch of things at random can be interesting, fun and educational but learning with a purpose is far more efficient.  First you have to identify the knowledge, skills and experience you need and then set out to achieve those objectives in a somewhat intentional manner.  Like most things, it takes years of constant effort to master a skill set.
  1. Willingness – I certainly agree with the author’s idea that a willingness to learn and try new things is necessary to become a successful entrepreneur. He provides an example of working for startups for little or no pay just to learn how it all worked.  Building an entrepreneurial skill set requires a combination of knowledge, applied learning and experience.  A successful entrepreneur must have an insatiable thirst for learning.  It takes hundreds of hours of research, countless meetings and interviews with advisers, temporary jobs (some of them not fun), and the drive to push through failure and learn from it.

THE TAKEAWAY –  Youthful exuberance, unconstrained creativity, boundless energy and a naive few of risk are all advantages of young entrepreneurs over their older counterparts.  However, these qualities must be coupled with just the right amount of purposefulness, thirst for knowledge, strength to fail and learn from it, and the willingness to do the hard things in order to become a successful entrepreneur.

4 Things That Baby Chics and Young Entrepreneurs Have in Common

4 Things That Baby Chics and Young Entrepreneurs Have in Common

Failure Inspiration Parenting

I’m a process oriented guy by nature. I believe that there are actually only a few basic processes in the world and that we simply use those basic processes in a multitude of applications from scientific discovery, to solving engineering challenges, to developing employees.  Unless you grew up on a farm with chickens, one of the processes that you may not know much about is the early stage of life for a baby chicken.  I find it interesting that the process of a baby chic escaping its shell is similar to the development process for  young entrepreneurs.

According to a host of forums and information sources on hatching chics (yes, there are discussion forums for such topics) chicks are fully capable of breaking out of their shells with the egg tooth on the top of their beaks… it is what they were designed for!  There is no owner’s manual or set of instructions.  They’re wired to survive.  Humans are wired for survival as well.  As if survival and growth for all humans isn’t challenging enough, the path for young entrepreneurs can be even more challenging.

What can we learn from the similarities of the first hours of life for baby chics and the early years of life for young entrepreneurs?

  1. The Process Takes Time – While it can take chics from hours to all day to hatch, it takes young entrepreneurs years to develop. The comparison is a bit like the concept of dog years.  For the novice chicken farmer these hours can seem like an eternity and can be filled with concern about the chic’s survival.  Similarly, for young entrepreneurs and their parents, gaining the skills and knowledge to be an entrepreneur takes years of persistent effort.
  1. Be Patient and Only Help When Necessary – For the chicken farmer, patience and the discipline to not help the baby chic break out of their shell unless it is absolutely necessary are key to the chic’s survival. While there are techniques for helping the chic break out of its own shell, helping the chic too much will undermine the intent of the natural process.  It is the same with young entrepreneurs.  They must be given the time and freedom to figure things out on their own.  Like the baby chics, they were born with the capacity to be independent but we have to give them the opportunity.  Like the chicken farmer, we can help soften the shell just a little so they can peck their way out.  However, if we peel away the shell for them, they will not survive long term.
  1. The Struggle is Necessary for Near Term Survival – In the hatching process, baby chics gradually build lung capacity and physical strength. Both of which are required for the chic to endure the long hours and effort it takes to peck its way out of the shell.  Young entrepreneurs also need to struggle through many small challenges early in their development.  Dealing with these struggles early on will force them to build their knowledge and skills to solve problems and give them confidence in their ability to handle diversity.
  1. The Struggle is Necessary for Long Term Survival – The ability of baby chics to survive the hatching process is a key to their long term survival. As challenging as the hatching process was for them, the challenges of survival outside the shell are far greater.  The life of an entrepreneur is similar.  Building knowledge, skill and confidence early on will prepare the young entrepreneur for the greater challenges ahead.  These challenges are not limited to business but also include relationships, physical and mental health, and living a balanced life.

THE TAKEAWAY – The saying that “nothing worth doing in life is easy” was never truer than when describing the entrepreneurial life.  It is simultaneously incredibly challenging and amazingly rewarding.  It must be earned by years of knowledge acquisition, skills development, doing and learning, and sprinkled with periodic disappointment and failure.  If it were easy, anyone could do it, and entrepreneurs aren’t just anyone.

2.5 Keys to Balancing the Roles of Parent and Business Advisor

2.5 Keys to Balancing the Roles of Parent and Business Advisor

Communication Parenting Relationships

The challenge of being both a parent and business advisor to a young entrepreneur is formidable.  Keeping the parent-child relationship and the business advisor-entrepreneur relationships separated was, at least for us, a major challenge.

We always viewed our jobs as parents as that of teachers, spiritual guides, counselors, confidantes and disciplinarians.  Our parenting style is a very hands-on, values and rules oriented, sometimes in-your-face approach.  While we welcomed hearing the opinions of our kids most of the time, ultimately, we tried to guide them in learning how to make good decisions on their own and made those decisions for them when necessary, usually much to their displeasure.  However, being a business advisor was a completely different kind of relationship with Joshua, our young entrepreneur.  I saw my role as helping to educate, advise and connect.  I didn’t do things for him and I didn’t make business decisions.  In my view, that was part of his learning process.  He needed to own what he was doing.  It was on him to educate himself about product development and business, and somehow balance all that with school.  It was a test of his passion and his drive to succeed.  It was the only way I knew to prepare him for the challenges of an entrepreneurial life.  He had to succeed or fail on his own merits.

Here are some of the things we did to make it all work:

1.  We kept our business and family conversations separate – We learned the hard way that we needed to do this. Joshua and I found ourselves mixing many of our normal family conversations with business discussions.  The stress this put on our relationship resulted in some rather heated interactions.  Gwen, my wife and Joshua’s mom, was inadvertently thrust into the roles of referee and peace maker.  We all knew we had to do something different and Joshua and I began to plan our business conversations just like any other business meeting.  We did our best not to discuss business at other times especially family meals or when we were around extended family and friends.  

2.  My business advisor role was confined to educating, questioning, advising and connecting – I don’t believe I ever told Joshua what business decisions to make. I did the best I could to help him figure it out by understanding his options and the potential outcomes.  Most of the time he sorted it out and made a sound decision.  He learned to make decisions without all the information he really needed.  He also learned to own the outcomes of his bad decisions.

2.5  You have to watch them fail – This fits closely with #2 and it was a tough one.  To allow your child, excuse me – my business advisee, to make a bad decision that you know will have a negative impact on him is one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do.  The parent side of me wanted to nurture him and step in to take over before it all went south.  Unfortunately, failure is part of learning and is sometimes the only way to get the really important lessons in life.  As a teenager, Joshua was also trying to carve out his own place in the world and be independent.  He thought he knew more than he did sometimes.  Teenage naiveté and an entrepreneurial ego are not always a good combination. My philosophy was that it is okay for young entrepreneurs to hit the ground once in a while.  My job as an advisor was to make sure he hit the ground hard enough to get his attention, and hopefully learn how not to make the same mistake twice, but not so hard that he didn’t want to get up and try again.  Hard to watch and hard to manage but I’m convinced that this is the only way certain young entrepreneurs will learn some of life’s most important lessons.  Always having a soft landing doesn’t teach us much.

THE TAKEAWAY – It is impossible to completely separate the roles of parent and business advisor with a young entrepreneur.  However, with a bit a structure, strategy and everyone understanding their role, it can be managed successfully.  There were times when I felt I was too tough on Joshua.  I told him once that “if he survived me he would be prepared for just about anything life might throw at him”.  I guess you’ll have to ask him how it all turned out.