You may have heard that millennials aren’t starting businesses at the rate of previous generations.
According to the Kauffman Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to studying entrepreneurship, startup rates among Americans age 20 to 34 peaked at 35 percent in 1996 and has since declined to 23 percent.
Forget the pundits and their talk of the Great Recession’s effect, monopolistic corporations, student debt, and slowing population growth. It’s much simpler than that.
Raised by helicopter parents, millennials just can’t shake the habit of listening to advice. And as an entrepreneur myself, I know how critical it is to ignore so-called experts.
Within two weeks of hanging our shingle, my partner and I submitted to a class project for a local college. A business professor and eight students visited to grill us for 90 minutes. A month later, the retinue returned.
“Let me be candid,” said the professor. “Your business has little chance of succeeding.” Kathy and I flinched.
“We’ve run the numbers, researched the market, factored in your resources and level of experience, and, well. . . . ” He looked down and shook his head, delivering the coup de grace non-verbally.
His advice in so many words? Update your resumes — today, if possible.
Almost three decades later, I look back on that afternoon and marvel that my now-wife and I succeeded. The odds were certainly stacked against us.
On our side of the ledger were resolve, resiliency, and a longing for independence. On reality’s side were revenue projections, capital outlays, return on investment, and market share. We were anorexics on the mat with a Japanese sumo.
Yet our business thrives to this day. By any measure, we won the match. But how? If the prof and his students returned and asked how we proved them wrong, what would we say? Simply this — the weaknesses you identified proved to be our camouflaged strengths. For example:
We were blind to the odds. I remember leasing a postage meter in our first month. The company rep recommended a three-year contract. I suggested five, hoping to shave the fee. She demurred; businesses like yours, well, let’s stay with three.
We didn’t know much about business. I didn’t have financial expertise, nor did Kathy. You wouldn’t find even one economics course on our transcripts. But we possessed what Mark Twain described as the two things you need in life to succeed: ignorance and confidence. The former we had in spades. As for our lack of business savvy, we wore it like a chip on our shoulders.
We had little patience with systems. At a meeting with a volunteer from SCORE — a group providing free business counseling — I did my best to suppress a yawn as the retired exec plotted a series of steps we needed to take before opening the doors. He also wanted to know whether we had a mission statement. I kept tapping my foot; Kathy withheld her sighs. Paperwork was make-believe to us. It wasn’t going to determine whether we succeeded. Our wits would have to do that.
We weren’t strategic. Our business goal was basic — survival. Improvise or die was our clarion call. We couldn’t afford to procrastinate, so we ran with whatever seemed sensible at the moment. No one at Wharton would call our carpe diem approach strategic.
We didn’t delegate. In the early days, there was no alternative. If the computer froze, one of us dug out the manual to thaw it. If a mailing had to go out, we were the clerical staff. But even as profits grew, and hiring was an option, we continued our labor-intensive ways. Granted, we didn’t always put our skills to the best use, but running lean kept margins high and overhead low.
Of course, my wife and I have grown wiser over the years. We wouldn’t advise would-be entrepreneurs to follow our model. But, then, we wouldn’t advise them to follow any model except one that feels right.
That’s why we politely listened to the professor and then went about our business. We encourage millennials to do the same.
“Beware of advice about successful people and their methods,” says Scott Adams, creator of the “Dilbert” comic strip, “no two situations are alike.” Adams isn’t the first to issue such a warning. Two thousand years earlier, Cicero said something similar: “No one can give you wiser advice than yourself.”
The professor understood business. But entrepreneurs and their driving spirit? Not so much.
Jerry Cianciolo is chief editor at Emerson & Church, Publishers, the company he and his wife, Kathleen Brennan, founded in 1986.
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