Young Entrepreneurs

Every once in a while, I get to spend my day judging a student business plan competition. I’ve had this opportunity at a few different universities, and it is always inspiring to see students work so hard on entrepreneurial ideas and watch them present in front of judges who think they know what they’re talking about. It takes a lot of guts. Sitting in the judge seat is great fun because it plays out kind of like American Idol. You usually have one judge who enjoys the role of Simon – I realize he’s no longer on the show, but you know what I’m talking about – telling the kids that they might as well drop out of school because their idea and presentation is garbage, one neutral judge, and one judge who tells the kids how wonderful they are for just participating and gives them suggestions for things they have not yet thought about like the business model or who will actually pay for their product. The third one is like Paula Abdul (or Jennifer Lopez?) but with useful feedback; that’s how I see my role.

At one business plan competition I had the chance to judge, one of my fellow judges gave the following feedback. He told the two-student team that they can’t possibly succeed in the industry they are targeting because they are too young and look too much like kids. The judge meant this as real feedback and went on to say something about how they should bring someone with gray hair onboard, and THEN they might have a fighting chance. I was perplexed by this feedback since we were judging a STUDENT business plan competition, and the entrants were obviously kids since it is an entry requirement.

A very successful investor, and one of the richest people in the US, once told me that the ideal entrepreneur is 28 years old or younger. I often think back to that because I really think he’s right. Young people have less experience, but they also have less to lose. They’re less biased by pre-conceived ideas and less jarred by decades of corporate politics or previous shortcomings.

What I’ve learned about behavioral psychology tells me that telling a kid that he or she is too inexperienced to do something is about the least useful thing you can do. Introducing that doubt into his or her mind is in no way helpful.

So if you meet a kid who is thinking about something entrepreneurial, assuming the idea is not totally batty, tell him or her to go for it! And even if the idea is totally batty, tell them you think it’s awesome they are thinking like an entrepreneur! If you have advice for them on how they could do it in a better less batty way or if you think they could take it another direction, then give them that feedback; that is extremely useful.

Letting them know that you believe they are capable of something big is way more valuable than explaining to them why you, with all your years of experience, know they will fail. Remember that their inexperience, which tends to come with more ambition and less bias, is in some ways a benefit. They are less likely to do something that simply improves upon an existing product and more likely to come up with something entirely new because they haven’t spent the last couple decades immersed in that industry, surrounded by the usual way of doing things. Even if they don’t hit it out of the park with their first idea, be it batty or brilliant, just working on an entrepreneurial idea will make them more prepared to hit it out of the park with other challenges life throws at them later, including potential start-up opportunities.

Here is the link to this year’s UNM biz plan competition.

And Albuquerque Startup Weekend is a great opportunity for entrepreneurs young and old!

Comments

  1. Great article Katie. I agree that feedback and mentoring must be contextualized so that it is meaningful for the recipient. It can be blunt, caustic, encouraging, deflating, empowering, or crushing but it must always be meaningful. When age or some other largely irrelevant factor is brought to the table it often communicates either a lack of interest in being constructive on the part of the mentor, a lack of understanding of the idea on the part of the judge, or the mentor is more concern with their own ego than anything else. Tech entrepreneurs come in all ages so I concur with Katie in supporting their hunger in trying something big. Look for talent and hunger, not metrics lacking meaning to the outcome.

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