5 lessons from 5 years as a millennial entrepreneur

Eugene Cheng
advice for millennial entrepreneurs

Don’t let your age and inexperience become a liability; rather, treat it as an asset

According to the Global University Entrepreneurial Spirit Students’ Survey (GUESSS), 79.8 per cent of students in Singapore showed “Entrepreneurial Interest”, or have given some thought into starting their own business.

When I started doing freelancing work about five years back and eventually starting our presentation training and consulting company HighSpark, it’s safe to say that I wasn’t too sure what I was doing half the time. As an 19-year old back then, school did little to prepare me for entrepreneurship and I think it’s fair to say the same for the other 79.8 per cent.

There were plenty of pitfalls we could’ve avoided and opportunities we missed due to lack of experience, but the steep learning curve over the period due to failure is a nice side effect.

Below are 5 lessons I’ve garnered over the course of the last 5 years after starting a business as a millennial:

1. You don’t need 5 people to start a business

It’ll feel really comfortable to work with people you know, but be warned, things can turn ugly very quickly. There are a few caveats to working with close friends:

  • Not every social friend makes a good work colleague.
  • Too many chefs spoil the broth — too many people making decisions makes things slow and sluggish.
  • You might keep them around for sentiment rather than utility.

When we first started our company, I wanted to work exclusively with my close friends. Unfortunately, it became difficult to keep personal relationships separate from professional ones and we had a difficult spat with one of our early partners.

Couple of years in, we’re all still good friends, but I learned the hard way that you can start a business with two or fewer people and that partners need to be aligned from the get-go to avoid a recipe for disaster. I’ve also learned that you can rationally select partners for good reasons:

  1. They offer a complementary skillset that you lack.
  2. Both of you work well together, and they can take responsibility and deal with problems when they occur.
  3. They are honest people that you can trust and have good attitudes.

2. “Build it and they will come” is not true

Numerous first-time young entrepreneurs assume that they just need to build a good product and customers will automatically flock to them. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. What follows is a group of hungry young people spending months just building a product that might not make any money.

  • Nobody’s going to say ‘TAKE MY MONEY’ if they don’t know who you are in the first place.
  • Without any form of market validation, you might be wasting your time building something nobody wants.

Put yourself out there; If not someone else will

You need to ensure you’re visible to your target audience. (i.e. the people that are going to pay you). Sitting in the office day-after-day is a surefire way to not getting any traction. Your customers aren’t in your office. You need to find out where they hang out and start outreach efforts from the beginning.

Also read: 3 budget-friendly marketing strategies to drive sales and ROI for your startup

When I first started out, I created a LinkedIn profile, SlideShare presentations and started reaching out cold to people that could possibly use my service. After the first few clients, things started moving along nicely once I got some referrals from past clients. There will be many things that are out of your control, but the effort you put in to make yourself visible is something within your control.

3. You don’t necessarily have to ‘fail’ before you make it

Don’t let anyone tell you that being an entrepreneur is going to be a walk in the park. It entails plenty of late nights, rejection and aimlessness. However, failure isn’t always the ‘mother of success’. For some reason, I’ve met young entrepreneurs that welcome failure and actively take uncalculated risks for no rhyme or reason.

I’m not saying failure is anything bad, but you shouldn’t actively seek it for the sake of it. There were instances where a word of advice from someone who’s been-there-done-that would have saved us a week of headaches from making a mistake that he had made before.

Don’t fear failure, but why not avoid it if you can?

Here’s an analogy: You read a news article about someone losing a lot of money to an online scammer. Two days after, you get an email from the exact scammer asking for money. Any sane individual would avoid this dodgy person completely, right?

Similarly, if you’re privileged enough to be in contact with a more experienced entrepreneur that has weathered similar difficulties, don’t make the same mistakes they did already. In that same vein, it’s the reason why many young people seek out mentors whether as an entrepreneur or salaried worker.

Also read: Should we celebrate failure?

4. People will underestimate you, but that’s okay

On numerous occasions, our efforts or expertise have been discounted because of our age. There were times the prospect doesn’t buy or they’d ask questions like: “What makes you qualified to do this?” Over time, we learned to deal with these objections and eventually mustered up the confidence to sell to clients twice (and sometimes thrice) our age.

Remember: You’re trying to help them, not fleece them

There will be instances where people you meet might make you feel like an imposter or con-artist trying to make them part with their money. It’s only natural that we’re loss-averse as human beings. If you bring actual value to the table that can potentially help your client, there is nothing to feel bad about the sales process. You’re trying to help them, they just need to be persuaded to let you do that.

Being young makes it easy to exceed expectations

Your age can be your strength. If you’ve managed to do reasonably well with your business (read: reasonably), you can expect people to be impressed. The bar just happens to be automatically set unusually low because of your age.

When we first started our business and got a few clients, numerous digital news outlets were interested to feature our story and experienced entrepreneurs offered us valuable advice. I don’t recall us being particularly outstanding, but we exceeded expectations on that front.

Also read: 6 important things to remember about your millennial colleagues

5. Nobody knows what they’re doing, they might never know

It can be intimidating (and demoralising) when you see peers getting ahead of you. It seems like everyone’s got it all figured out except you and your team.

The truth of the matter is that even the most seasoned entrepreneurs feel unsure sometimes. The best of them never pretend to have it figured out, but they have a plan that they stick to.

If you’re still mucking around and trying to make your ideas a reality, don’t beat yourself up just because someone else is doing it a little faster. Your journey and challenge is different from theirs and you’ll get there eventually if you tick the right boxes.

There will be many reasons you might feel scared to take the plunge into entrepreneurship, but the fear of falling behind others already in it shouldn’t be one of them.

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