Starting a business is tough enough, and when you're young and inexperienced, the challenge of building credibility is an added pressure. But you shouldn’t let your age get in the way.
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"Being young and not having entrenched experience can actually be an advantage,” says Susan Gregg Koger, 26, who founded ModCloth, an online fashion retail company when she was 17. The company now has 240 employees and offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh. “Learning quickly and understanding what a Facebook user wants, what a Twitter user wants – there's something very valuable in being part of that demographic and user base," she says.
Still, it’s important to take a strategic approach to growing your business when you don’t have the power of experience on your side. Here are five tips to help young entrepreneurs build the kind of credibility needed to make their business a success.
1. Focus. Focus. Focus. You've got a lot of ideas you're eager to try out. That's natural for many entrepreneurs in the early stages of business, but to build credibility, you need a very specific focus. "You never want to be good at 20 things," says Jared O'Toole, 25, founder of Under30CEO, a New York-based organization for young entrepreneurs. "There's always going to be someone who is better than you at each one of those things." Rather than strategizing about how to build the next billion-dollar company, focus on carving out a niche for yourself. "That focus builds your credibility," O'Toole says.
2. Build your business online. The online world is an obvious place to begin building a track record as a business owner, says Neil Patel, 26, co-founder of KISSmetrics a San Francisco-based web-analytics company. “A web presence is cheap and it's a great way to show people what you are made of," he says. "As a young entrepreneur that's really important because age is not on your side."
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Not only is blogging and using social media important in gaining exposure, reaching out to other businesses online is also key, adds Koger. "I did a ton of outreach in the beginning," she says, noting that she exchanged website links with other vintage retail entrepreneurs when blogging during her company's early years. "You never know who can help you."
3. Make time for face-time. But Facebook, Twitter, and email will get you only so far. As part of a tech-obsessed generation, young entrepreneurs shouldn’t forget the value of face-to-face networking, says O'Toole. "You might have a good relationship with someone through email but they aren't going to offer that handshake that gets you to the next level with one of their buddies," he says. "You really have to make an effort to set up meetings, go to events and shake hands."
O'Toole suggests reaching out to people you admire in the industry and asking them to meet in person. When someone well-respected introduces you at an event, many people will assume you are doing something right, O'Toole says. "You don't need a hundred people, you just need to associate with a couple of people that everyone knows in the industry," he says. "That's your fast track to the next level."
4. Deliver on your promises. Building strong relationships with clients in the early stages of your business is also important in establishing credibility. Those are the people who will vouch for your company, so go the extra mile for them. For Aaron Batalion, chief technology officer and co-founder of LivingSocial, a Washington, D.C.-based daily deal company, those early relationships with merchants and customers were important in building the company's name. Batalion was 27 when he and his three co-founders started LivingSocial in 2007. Today they have 2,500 employees and 40 million members around the world. "Once you… go above and beyond what you said you would do, people see that and share it with their colleagues,” he says.
But while it's critical to make your customers happy, don't try to rope them in with lofty promises. "If you can't provide something don't promise it," says Patel. "Always under-promise and over-deliver."
5. Be yourself. You may be tempted to make yourself seem older or conceal your age, but it’s an unnecessary and possibly detrimental precaution to take, says Patel. Instead, be confident and transparent. "If you can show that you're mature and smart for your age, why not show it?" he says.
Apologizing for your lack of experience and youth is also not a smart move, says Koger. "If you are working with someone you have to apologize for your age with, it's probably not a relationship you should be pursuing," she says.
Bottom line? Focus on what you're good at and age won't matter. "You build up credibility by being an expert in your field," Batalion says. "It's important to make sure the thing you're best at is what you're passionate about."