Recently, I wrote a column about 10 young entrepreneurs. Originally I titled it “10 under 20” but the Forbes editors thought that was too close to their “30 under 30” column so they changed it to “10 Great Lessons From Millennial Entrepreneurs.” I didn’t like that title, because it implied these were “great” entrepreneurs, and I really didn’t think they were all that great. Now that some time has gone by, I really regret having written the column.
1 – PR Inundation
I’ve written this column at Forbes for almost 7 years. So I am pitched for unsolicited columns every day by PR firms. On average, about 10 pitches every day. But nothing compared with the onslaught of emails I received after the millenial column. Firm after firm, and even individuals, contacted me by email, on Facebook, Linked-in, and Twitter to tell me about some incredible young person who just absolutely needed to be written about. You would think that every high school, and small university, in America had at least one, if not multiple, young prodigies all of which were destined to change the world. It was an avalanche of pitches, from which I could not even begin to fully read, much less respond.
But, almost universally these businesses were not that fantastic. Most were the modern day equivalent of someone opening a lawn service in 1960. Simple businesses that had little to distinguish them. Many had no revenues, and many were little more than somebody’s idea of a business they would like to build. Those that had revenues were so small as to be meaningless, and almost none made any impact on their industry or competition.
The pitches were, without a doubt, the most hyped pitches I have ever received. Over and over I kept asking “why would anyone think this is in the slightest interesting?
The only reason this is being pitched is because it involves someone under the age of 25. And usually that someone lacks any credentials and offers no new insight to the industry or product.”
2 -Not a sustainable business
Writing an app is not a business. Even if it sold a few thousand copies. Nor is trading baseball cards, or selling someone else’s stuff on eBay. Nor is buying bitcoins. By and large, 99% of the pitches were for one-product opportunities that clearly lacked any sense of being a sustainable business which could produce recurring revenue over multiple years. Almost none had any employees, and those that did had a mere handful with no plans to scale any larger.
At best most were simply a single shot situation which generated some revenue for the millennial founder. And most could only pay the founder because the business had no overhead and a highly subsidized cost structure due to support from parents. Many had no, or little, profits and there was nowhere near enough cash to repay traditional investors. Because there was no cost for financing, overhead or even variable activities like payroll, these businesses could not be considered a success in any traditional sense.
3 – These were not really entrepreneurs
French economist Jean-Baptiste Say coined the term entrepreneur. He used it to describe people who seek out inefficient uses of resources and capital then redeployed them into more productive, higher-profit uses. None of the pitched businesses actually redeployed any resources. And none really developed a new industry that created greater productivity. These were just ideas that manifested into a product that fit an immediate need. Most used an existing infrastructure, such as an app store, to do one thing – like sell an app. Maybe someday they’ll write another – but there was no indication any research was happening, customer analysis or market testing to create a long-term business.
Additionally, for entrepreneurs there is some element of risk-taking. For taking risk, by investing in something where others won’t invest, there is the opportunity for outsized returns. But these folks didn’t take any risk at all. It wasn’t their money they invested, but rather their family’s. Most either lived at home, or lived in housing paid for by family (such as a college dorm room.) Most had nothing invested in their “business” other than personal time, and if this failed there was almost nothing lost. And most had minimal gains relative to the size of the risk they undertook with other people’s resources.
And they all lacked any sense of a business plan. Now I’m all for innovation and trying new things, but business success requires the ability to generate ongoing revenue for a prolonged period that covers all costs and creates returns for investors. These folks simply promoted ideas with no description of how this was to be a long-term profitable venture that succeeded for customers, suppliers and financial backers. I found that I would not have been an investor in hardly any of these “businesses” and surely would not recommend readers to back them.
4 – These folks were big self-promoters, not business promoters
Almost to a pitch every story was about some individual – not a business success. I was told over and over and over about how some 17, 18, 19 or 20 year old was absolutely a genius; a modern miracle of incredible business insight. Yet, there was little to back-up these claims. In the end, these were just young folks who had some sense of ambition and fortitude that were doing a few experiments and had (in some instances, not all) sold a few things. But their stories really weren’t that interesting.
One young fellow washed vehicles. He got a contract to wash trucks. And he had expanded his truck washing capability to multiple trucking companies. OK, ambitious and hard working. But nothing fantastic. No technology breakthrough. Just a basic service that he sold cheaply enough to win some contracts. But, he was unwilling to discuss his margins, how much he paid himself or others and how he financed the company or paid a return to his backers. Yet, he was certain that he could franchise his truck washing business and soon enough he would be the next Ray Kroc. He, and his PR person (and it was unclear who paid her) failed to realize that his story might be interesting in 20 years after he proved he could build the next McDonald’s making himself, his investors and his franchisees rich.
Add onto this the fact that almost all of these people had nothing good to say about anyone older. For some reason I was informed over and again that nobody over 40 could really understand how brilliant this person is, and how guaranteed was future success. These people universally had no value for advice from people older than them, no value for those with experience (all experience was seen as irrelevant to their brilliant insight,) and no value for education. There was no reason to study business practices, or even business history, much less anything like engineering, because they simply had taught themselves all they needed to know – and if they needed to know anything else they would teach that to themselves as well.
I kept saying to myself “get over yourself kid. You are working hard, but so are a lot of other people. You really haven’t accomplished anything of merit yet. And there’s not really anything here that indicates you will achieve great things. You may win awards for just showing up at school, or at the soccer match, but in business you have a LOT more to prove than you can show up and possibly accomplish some of the basics. Once..”
5 – No sense of how to build something, or even engage in quid pro quo
Bill Gates built a company that produced software millions of people wanted. Steve Jobs built a company that made devices (computers initially) that millions wanted. Henry Ford made cheap cars that millions of people wanted. Mark Zuckerberg created an interaction engine that millions of people wanted (and advertisers would pay to reach.) These founders understood that building a successful business meant combining multiple resources into an organization that functions capably to build products and markets.
If you asked them “why should I write about you?” they would answer, “to tell folks about the improvement in their life from my company’s products.”
When I asked these millennial entrepreneurs why I should write about them, the answer was “because I’m young and great and going places.”
Worse, when I pointed out that in today’s world columnists rely on readers, and therefore columnists want to know the topic will generate reads, they were without even a good idea of how a column on them would generate reads. When I asked “will you promote this through a large social media conduit to drive readers to the column?” they responded with “but isn’t that what Forbes does, bring in readers? I think you should write about me so Forbes readers can become enlightened. Why should I be asked to promote your column, isn’t that what you and Forbes do?”
It was completely unclear to me who was paying for these PR firms. But to them, and to the hundreds of millennials who sent me Facebook, Linked-in and Twitter messages:
- Quit focusing on yourself and actually accomplish something. Don’t be proud you’re a drop-out, go finish school.
- Listen more and talk less. You really don’t have much that’s interesting to say. Pay attention to those who are older, wiser and could help you reach your goals. You need them, and most of them don’t need you. You’re really not as interesting as you think you are.
- Get some education. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are my age – not yours. Every generation needs more skills than the one before it. Mark Zuckerberg is THE exception, not the rule. Dropping out of Harvard did not make him great. Before you decide you have all the answers, go learn what the questions are. Learn how to think, how to reason, before you decide you know all that’s needed to take action.
- Quit living on subsidies. If your parents or grandparents or aunts and uncles are paying for your rent, or car, or supplies then you still don’t understand basic economics. Become self-sufficient. Make enough money to buy your own new car, buy your own house, and pay 100% of your bills – and even enough that you could afford to raise children. Until you are self-reliant it is very hard to take you seriously as a business leader.
- Life is NOT a one-round event. You are very likely to live 100 years. Do you have the skills to maintain your lifestyle for that full 100 years? Quit crowing about the 1 success (by your definition) you’ve had so far and instead figure out how you’ll lead a productive 100 year existence. You’re only 20% of the way there.
I hear folks say we need to advance millennials onto boards of directors for public companies. Or fund their new ventures without business plans or traditional benchmarks. Or put them into highly placed positions of major corporations. I can’t agree with that. From what I observed, millennials are similar to all other young people. They don’t know what they don’t know. And only time, failures, successes, education (formal and informal) and hard work will prepare them to be tomorrow’s leaders.
I started my entrepreneurial life while a college junior. I was lucky enough to hook up with several people at least a decade older, and they found investors that were a generation older. The company made computer hardware, and largely due to good luck as well as hard work the company was successfull, and was sold for a great return to the investors and some money for the founders. Simultaneously I completed my undergraduate degree in 4 years, summa cum laude. What made me most excited about that experience was not trying to be featured in any journal, but rather that the folks at the Harvard Business School felt this experience was good enough to admit me to their institution to complete an MBA. And there is no doubt in my mind that what I learned in college, and grad school, was incredibly important to generating a lifetime of ongoing business accomplishments – long after that first company disappeared into the dustbin of obsolete technology.