Join the Startup Revolution

By Joanna L. KrotzBusiness on Main

Young, educated and ready to launch? You’re in good company. Nationwide, Gen Y is taking the wheel and reinventing it.

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The pipeline for entrepreneurs is pumping with high-octane fuel these days, especially when it comes to twentysomethings. If ever you dreamed about running your own business, this is an opportune time to take the stage.

Just forget the myth about the geek in the garage. That’s so 1.0. Instead, embrace the Borg — that is, the idea of the cybernetic “Star Trek” race that instantaneously shares bytes of knowledge, experience and missteps among its members — because right now, that’s the game changer.

“Today’s startup revolution is being fueled by social networking,” explains Jonathan Ortmans, president of the nonprofit Public Forum Institute and senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation. “You can start companies in groups without worrying so much about the formal stages of business creation. It’s an open-source environment less panicked about intellectual property protection. There’s a lot more freedom.”

Starting up

Why is now a good time to join the startup revolution?

Entrepreneurship tools and investments are being advanced everywhere as the best way to grow the economy and create new jobs. More than 5,000 entrepreneurship courses now are offered at two- and four-year colleges, up from only 250 in 1985, according to the Kauffman Foundation. (Learn more at its Youth Entrepreneurship page.)

In January, President Obama launched the Startup America Partnership, a well-funded public/private initiative to encourage high-growth enterprises, saying, “Entrepreneurs embody the promise of America.”

A rising tide of activists, business associations, schools, nonprofits, investors and corporations are spawning startup contests and boot camps to support new businesses. You can find one in your locale or field via online searches and by talking to your local Small Business Development Center office, community college or business professor.

A sampling:

- Ten-year-old Springboard Enterprises, which has helped 400 women-led companies raise more than $5 billion in equity financing

- The three-year-old Kairos Society, an international, student-run nonprofit launched by 21-year-old Ankur Jain, a student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School

- Municipal Small Business Services sponsorships like New York’s FinTech Innovation Lab.

- Contests hosted by venture capital firms and other associations, like the Keiretsu Forum, an angel investor network with 850 members

Walking the P2P talk

Cresting this peer-to-peer sensibility is a recently launched nonprofit called the Young Entrepreneur Council. It’s set up as an invitational brain trust of 80 or so high-flier business owners, ranging in age from 17 to their early 30s, who have signed on as mentor volunteers for wannabe peers. They answer selected online questions and write advice columns.

YEC’s founder and tireless promoter is Scott Gerber, who at 27 has already launched a business, gone bust, successfully launched anew, and written a popular handbook about his experiences called “Never Get a ‘Real’ Job.”

With the unemployment rate for college grads ages 20 to 24 hovering at a horrific 16 percent — compared to 8.9 percent for the general population — and with older workers forced to keep working or take entry-level jobs just to get by, young people can no longer trust parents or college pedigrees to provide a living.

A recent online survey of 1,632 people across the country, ages 16 to 39, conducted by YEC member Tina Wells and her Buzz Marketing Group, found that 79 percent of respondents are interested in entrepreneurship, and more than 35 percent who have jobs also work at side businesses, presumably to supplement income.

Gerber’s message is compelling to a generation under economic siege: “Entrepreneurship is no longer a choice, it’s a necessity. You need to create a job to keep a job.”

Gerber is not promoting Facebook-like success. On the contrary, YEC and the message in his book put the focus on small, immediate bootstrapping steps that can lead to stable income — or, as he puts it, “what you can do today to start generating money in an ethical and profitable way.”

What’s in it for you

With ever-expanding social networks, including incubators, idea labs, P2P mentors, courses and virtual partners, you now can start a business with very little capital. Better yet, you can tinker on an idea with scant penalty until you get it right.

The Public Forum Institute’s Ortmans advises young startups to “bootstrap as long as you possibly can in order to get up and going without going into debt.” He also urges young people to become engaged even if they’re not the entrepreneurial type. “Every business needs a team, and the story of creation is as much about the people sitting alongside the visionary as the leader himself,” says Ortmans.

Lastly, don’t mistake printing business cards, designing logos, writing business plans or interviewing CFOs as being the equivalent of running a viable operation. Those are merely trappings. The key element to starting up is to develop a product people want to buy — a niche in the market that you can fill — not designing a website or writing tag lines.

New York-based profitability coach Shaun Smith, author of the upcoming “Superstars & Shortcuts,” cuts to the chase for startups: “Get to the customer as fast as possible. That’s where the action is.”

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