If you’re in your early 20s, chances are you want to be a founder. Stats now show the majority of 16-21-year-olds today want to start their own business.
I did too.
After graduating from uni, I quickly dived into setting up a personal branding agency, WOAW. I bootstrapped the company and three years later, I’m still around to tell the tale, enjoying some serious highlights along the way and joining dozens of other Gen Z entrepreneurs in Europe.
But nobody told me that becoming a founder at 21 would strip me of parts of my young adult life, throw me into the most unforgiving of learning curves and be sink-or-swim from day one.
Entrepreneurship has been obsessively glamorised over the past decade, I fear, and there are troubling aspects that deserve coverage to prepare potential entrepreneurs and ensure they go in with their eyes open.
While I wouldn’t change my decision, I want to offer an honest reflection into starting a business at 21, and some tips for those thinking of doing the same.
Advice for young founders
Here are 10 things you need to know before taking the plunge:
1. If you start a business in your 20s after working for a few years, you’ll have a much better insight into your industry and a strong support network to call on, whether for advice or clients. Until then, Google will be your best friend. Nobody will spoon feed you the answers. Unlike school or university, you’ll also start from scratch and there’ll be zero structure.
2. Be prepared for your company to consume you. It’s incredibly difficult to create lines between work and home. Your relationships are likely to suffer. Look at maintaining your friendships as a key part of your business too — they’ll keep you grounded. And don’t talk about your company all the time! It’s not as interesting as you think, and it comes across indulgent.
3. Prepare for challenging periods of burnout and anxiety. You’ll need mental resilience to survive this. (See: Tom Blomfield)
Don’t talk about your company all the time. It’s not as interesting as you think
4. Being a founder actually involves a lot of admin. It means being the CEO, head of HR, head of delivery, head of content and head of operations all in one. It’s a constant juggling act of never-ending tasks that gets more complicated as your business evolves.
5. As you start to grow, accept you’ll need to remove yourself from parts of the business that don’t require the unique skill set that you have. The hardest thing will be finding people that you feel are better at doing these things than you.
6. Remember micro-failures are all part of the process. They will all help you become a better business leader
7. Don’t get distracted by what other businesses are doing. At the start, I set out to launch a flashy website with its own blog, arranging a rota system of writers. Eventually it became clear that a website wasn’t an immediate must-have and a half-hearted attempt on SquareSpace wasn’t going to get me my first client. Focusing on brand and networking-building was more important in my case.
8. You have a right to annual leave. Take it.
9. Actively look to meet other self-starters — you’ll be welcomed into one of the most supportive communities out there. People that get it, people that have been there and people that genuinely want to help you.
10. Finally, work at your negotiation skills early on to boost your odds with partners or clients. Being a founder has exposed me to the cutthroat part of business where people will scrap at you over the smallest details of a contract and walk out of the room over seemingly negligible numbers. I’ve used that to sponge up some of the best techniques to then apply later (like fundraising, which I may eventually need to do).
Many of the experiences I’ve had are universal, affecting founders of all ages, geographies, sectors and gender.
But there is something about the inexperience, the diversion from your peers’ careers, the natural anxiety of youth and the lack of a plan B that makes these feelings all the more intense as a young founder.
Go in with your eyes open, and get ready for a wild ride.
Joe Binder is a 24-year-old entrepreneur, who set up personal branding agency, WOAW three years ago, shortly after graduating. He is now also a mentor at ORT Jump and can be contacted here.
If you're still keen to be a founder (!), check out these mentoring schemes and incubators:
- Google for Startups’ Immersion: Women Founders programme
- Eight top European accelerators for female founders
- University incubator programmes
- Startup generators like Entrepreneur First and Antler
- Rainmaking's startup Bootcamp programme
And, if you'd like more tips and insights on 'startup life', please sign up to our new newsletter on just that subject, launching mid-February.