Wisdom often comes with maturity, but a growing number of young entrepreneurs are proving that age doesn’t matter when it comes to achieving success. In the new book 2 Billion Under 20: How Millennials Are Breaking Down Age Barriers and Changing the World, coauthors Stacey Ferreira and Jared Kleinert share the stories of 75 ambitious entrepreneurs who started with an idea and turned it into reality.
While it’s inspiring to read about accomplishments, the backstories almost always include failures. Six entrepreneurs featured in the book shared with Fast Company the mistakes they’ve made along the way, and what we can all learn from them:
The founder of the STEM education accelerator IQ Co-Op, Siouxsie Downs, has a lot of passion for nuclear technology–perhaps too much. “I get so excited about projects I am working on that the same excitement spreads to new projects that come up that I feel passionate about, too,” she says.
While she admits this trait is great for getting people on board for starting a venture, it can quickly lead to failure: “I have squandered opportunities and almost burned bridges because I‘ve dropped the ball,” she says.
Downs realized she couldn’t do everything after friends and colleagues called her out on her lack of follow-through. “It is physically impossible to work overtime on a day job, go to school full-time, run a startup, do research for another project, run a radio show, volunteer, and do about six other things,” she says. So Downs stepped down from the some of the projects and got someone to help her stay accountable to deadlines.
Letting go can be hard, she admits. “If you don’t, you will be done with the startup world,” she says. “You will stretch yourself thin and give 0% to 15% effort on 20 things instead of 100% on three things. Know what you value the most and give that your all.”
When Emmanuel Nyame got involved as lead organizer for the U.S. Department of State’s StartUp Cup accelerator program in Ghana, he wanted to be like his role model, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson. What he didn’t realize was that Branson was simply the figurehead of a large organization–he wasn’t running the whole show.
“I always read stories about him in the news, so I just figured that he did it all alone,” he says. “Man, I wasted so much time, and I was quickly exhausted every single day.”
Nyame realized that while CEOs are praised in the news and in magazines, no one succeeds in business all by himself. It’s essential that each startup forms a team of three–ideator, marketer, and finance expert, says Nyame. The “ideator” has the idea for the business, and is usually referred to as the founder or cofounder, he explains. The marketer attracts customers, and the finance expert raises funds and manages the money.
“Team members work hand in hand to achieve the goals of the company,” Nyame says. “If you see the CEO of a company being praised in a magazine, kindly do yourself this favor: Think, ‘He’s representing his team.’”
In the beginning of any entrepreneurial venture, it’s easy to focus on the big idea and the wide range of elements you need to make your business a success. But a lack of resources often forces you to be scrappy, says Zoe Mesnik-Greene, founder of Lasting Smiles, a social-purpose enterprise that provides cleft repair surgery funded through the sale of personal care products.
“In my case, I thought I could manage the accounting details myself to save money,” she says. “How hard could it be? It turned out it was harder than I thought.”
The busier Mesnik-Greene got with business strategies and negotiations, the more the small details suffered.
“As my business grew the first year, I discovered that the system I set up for accounting purposes had to be completely redone,” she says. “To save yourself a big headache down the road, bring in the right consultants to take care of the small yet critically important details, so you can focus on the big picture.”
One of the challenges of building a startup is finding a talented team and knowing when it’s time to bring people on. Ben Lang, cofounder of Mapme, a community map platform in Israel, says his company was passive in hiring, taking months to find the right developers, which delayed their growth.
“We realized that we need to be much more active and spend a lot of time when it comes to hiring,” he says. “For a while I spent hours scouring the web, looking on Facebook, LinkedIn, AngelList, to find top-notch people to join us.”
Lang says until a company is big enough to have a human resources manager, the cofounder needs to dedicate a huge portion of their time to hiring.
“It’s your responsibility to find potential employees who believe in your vision and bring them on board,” he says.
Bamidele Onibalusi is a serial entrepreneur from Nigeria and founder of the popular writing blog Writers in Charge. He’s just 19, but he says he’s almost destroyed his entrepreneurial career twice by starting too big.
“I’m very excited by nature, and I love seeing results fast,” he says. “Whenever I’m about to start a new project, I put everything into it.”
This enthusiasm almost cost him the fish farm he recently launched. “I decided to start really big by stocking over 10,000 fish,” he says. “The result was a loss.”
Down but not out, Onibalusi gave the fish farm a second try, this time stocking 6,000. “I paid careful attention to them,” he says. “I learned key lessons, turned a profit, and I am on track to stock more fish in a way that won’t negatively affect me.”
The lesson Onibalusi learned is to start small and scale. “By starting small, I can observe the dynamics of things, see what is working and what isn’t, learn management lessons, and gradually adapt to changes that come with growth,” he says. “Experience can indeed be a great teacher.”
When you get that big idea, it can be scary to share it. Daniel Ahmadizadeh had an idea for a site that connected people who were moving out of rentals to those who were looking to move in. But he had a fear that his idea would be stolen.
“I kept my idea to myself and shied away from others in fear of getting copied,” he says. He later learned that ideas are a dime a dozen–the gold is in how an idea is executed.
“One must have the conviction that they are destined to solve the problem at hand,” says Ahmadizadeh, who is the founder of Rentity. “Without conviction, it is tough to not lose confidence when people shoot down your vision.”
Ahmadizadeh has gone full circle and is now as transparent as possible about what he is doing. “Make your business presentation public using Google Presentation, and enable anyone to leave a comment,” he says. “The feedback that you receive will help you understand your product and business better. You should be making something people want. What better way than to question your assumptions by asking the crowd to contribute to how you are looking to shape your business?”