Why Teenagers Make Great Entrepreneurs
This article first appeared in Xconomy on August 5, 2016 here.
What is the ideal age to start a company? It’s a question that often circulates in the business press and on tech blogs. Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists have weighed in from time to time and their answers tend to fall into two camps. The first group advocates for the 20s as the optimal time. That’s when you have the passion, creativity, and energy necessary for entrepreneurial innovation. Twenty-somethings also tend to have few external commitments, like a spouse, kids, or a mortgage, which makes startup life easier to manage. The second group is a proponent of 30s and 40s—and even 50s. These decades are when you have the knowledge and experience, not to mention the contacts and resources, to make a new business successful.
Of course there is no right answer—you start a business when you have a great idea and you’re ready to take the entrepreneurial plunge—but I might point out that one age range is conspicuously absent from this debate: the teenage years.
Perhaps you’re chuckling right about now. Or maybe you’re groaning, rolling your eyes, and thinking, “What do high school kids know about launching and running businesses?”
You’re not alone in thinking this way. Even when faced with examples of incredibly successful entrepreneurs who started their billion-dollar businesses during their college years or after dropping out of college—think Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs—many remain skeptical about high school students and their entrepreneurial capabilities.
But because of a confluence of factors—the pace of technological change, the ever-lowering barriers to entry of starting a company, and the natural curiosity and boundary-pushing mindset inherent in this age group—today’s teenagers have the potential to create world-changing businesses.
It’s no secret that this generation of young people is technologically savvy. Today’s teens have grown up with the Internet. They don’t know a world without Google and Facebook; they don’t remember a time when people didn’t go around carrying Internet-enabled devices in their pockets.
In light of their ease with technology, they are in a prime position to spot opportunities for products and services that will improve people’s lives. Teens are also better equipped to execute on their ideas because of their innate facility with modern tools and equipment. Many teens already know how to do basic computer programming, how to code, and how to do 3D printing.
They may have the skills, but teenagers surely don’t have the resources—read: money—to start a business, right? Wrong. The headlines from Silicon Valley have conditioned us to think that you need to raise millions of dollars in venture funding to get a company off the ground. But in fact the average amount of money needed to start a new business is much lower. The Kauffman Foundation estimates that the average startup cost is approximately $30,000. Many businesses get started for as little as $3,000 or less, according to data from the Small Business Administration.
High school students also make great entrepreneurs because of their natural open-mindedness and drive to take risks. Teenagers have the capacity to dream outside the realm of their experiences. They are willing and eager to test limits and experiment; developmentally, they are not afflicted with the I-should-know-better-than-to-try-this effect. This propensity to take risks, of course, is not always a good thing and can get teens into serious trouble. That is why it’s important to find ways to channel teens’ enthusiasm for new and novel experiences in positive ways.
Entrepreneurship education is a great start. Hands-on programs, like MIT Launch, expose teens to the challenges of entrepreneurship: the time demands, changing market pressures, team dynamics, and the inevitable ups and downs of starting a business. Teens need opportunities to experiment, but they also need instruction in areas like leadership, resiliency, time management, and communication. They need to be connected to entrepreneurial networks, mentors, and leaders to help them find their footing. To unleash the potential of teenage entrepreneurs, we need more educational opportunities and accelerators designed for high school students.
Starting them early has real benefits. Even if a teen’s first stab at an entrepreneurial venture doesn’t do well, research shows that if that person is tenacious enough to try again, he increases his odds of success. In other words, experience, even when it doesn’t result in a successful business, is very valuable. Entrepreneurs learn just as much, if not more, from their mistakes as they do from their triumphs.
At a time when our entrepreneurial imperative is great, we need to capitalize on this new generation. Immersive experiences that provide education, guidance, and community support are the best way to nurture and cultivate the startups of the future.
Laurie Stach is the Founder of MIT Launch and Program Manager for the High School Education Program at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship.
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