Cory Nieves, founder of Mr. Cory’s Cookies, an e-commerce and wholesale cookie business based in Englewood, New Jersey, counts big customers like Aetna, Viacom, and Williams-Sonoma among his customer base. But, sometimes, his customers are a little taken aback when he arrives to meet with them. So his mom starts the conversation, and then he takes over once they’re comfortable. Bringing a parent to meetings would likely backfire for most young business founders, but Nieves just turned 14 years old.
Nieves started his business in 2010 at the age of 6 with the goal of buying his mother a car. Since then, the company has expanded from him selling cookies in the neighborhood to a growing and profitable enterprise. He’s appeared on Ellen (who gave his mother a car), and Marcus Lemonis, star of CNBC’s The Profit, has invested in his business.
The issue of being taken seriously is real for young entrepreneurs (even those over 18), says Callum Negus-Fancey, founder of Verve, a word-of-mouth marketing company founded in the U.K. with U.S. headquarters in Los Angeles. Negus-Fancey launched his first business when he was 17, which later grew into Verve. Although the company now has clients like Ticketmaster and Eventbrite, he struggled with being taken seriously in the early days.
If you’re a late millennial or generation Z entrepreneur, here are some smart strategies to help you get the respect you deserve.
Before Nieves meets with a new client, he gets online and does some homework. He looks up the school they went to, learns about their business background, and looks for other items that may be interesting conversation starters. “I tell them all the things that I’ve looked up and read about them. And there’re really surprised, they’re amazed, like ‘How did you know about this? My employees don’t even know about this,'” he says. That lays the foundation for a business relationship because they see he’s interested and has taken the time to learn about the other person, he says.
Similarly, do some research about the client and their goals, says tech entrepreneur Anthony Frasier, entrepreneur-in-residence of Newark Venture Partners, a Newark, New Jersey-based fund backed by Audible/Amazon, and author of Don’t Dumb Down Your Greatness: A Young Entrepreneur’s Guide to Thinking & Being Great. Read the company’s website and recent news releases. Find recent media reports about the company and work on discerning what their goals, priorities, and challenges are. If you’re targeting publicly traded companies, you may find useful information in their quarterly reports and investor relations materials, he says. These are all relatively basic sales tactics, but if you haven’t been taught to look in these places, you may overlook rich sources of information that can help you solve a challenge or meet a need the company has, he adds.
Think beyond the idea
Having a great idea is one thing, but being able to build a viable business based on it is another, Frasier says. Too often, young entrepreneurs fall in love with an idea without doing the due diligence necessary to ensure it can be built into a profitable enterprise. “A lot of times when I was young, I would come to people, ‘I’ve got this great idea,’ and they just never took me seriously,” he says. Once he began writing down his research into a plan that showed it could be a viable business, others began treating him as a serious professional, he says.
So, write a business plan or, at the very least, get familiar with the market for your product or service, as well as production, delivery, pricing and distribution mechanisms and strategies that you’ll need to run your business. When you know well how your business will operate and grow, it’s tough to not take you seriously, Frasier says.
Cultivate positive, professional habits
Starting a business is hard work, but it doesn’t always have to be all-consuming, Frasier says. As you build your business, cultivate positive, professional habits that will help you stay healthy and perform well. Taking care of yourself, developing a healthy routine, getting enough rest and exercise, and establishing other healthy routines will all benefit your business, he says. Hustle is important, but not at the expense of your health and creativity, he says.
“Once you get into a habit, creating those positive habits, then you’ll start to change everything else about how you work in your business. I usually try to teach entrepreneurs to build themselves up personally and watch how their business builds up,” he says.
Grow your network
It’s never too soon to start growing your network, and doing so can help you overcome some of the challenges of inexperience, says leadership coach Cheri B. Torres, author of Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement. “It never hurts to make connections with those key people if it’s possible and appropriate ahead of time,” she says. So work on meeting people who will help your business or who can teach you something.
Frasier delivers a big caveat, though: Give before you ask. He says that he developed three habits when he was first starting out that helped him get taken more seriously. In addition to having a well-laid-out plan for his business and becoming an authority in his area, he would make connections between people who could help each other and find other ways to be useful. “I think a lot of young entrepreneurs, they take before they give. They always come with their hands out and never really come with value,” he says. Find ways to make yourself valuable to the people in your network, and they’ll be motivated to help you, too.
Be humble and willing to learn
Sometimes young entrepreneurs expect people to not take them seriously and act preemptively defensive or like they know everything. That’s a mistake, Negus-Fancey says. Instead, become a sponge and try to learn as much as possible. Hire people who are more expert than you in certain areas. When you show a willingness to be humble and learn, and you’re also passionate and surrounding yourself with the best people, that’s a winning combination, especially for investors, he says.
When you’re first starting out in your business, you’re going to experience rejection or hardships along the way. Cultivating resilience is essential for surviving over the long haul, Negus-Fancey says. If one approach doesn’t work out, try another. Don’t take rejection personally. And keep learning.
Most of all, keep believing in yourself, Nieves says. “People, sometimes they’ll get a little mean and stuff, and then you have to just shake it off. Don’t take it to heart, and always do research,” he says.