Gerard Adams sends his first Snap around 5 a.m. most days. Sometimes they’re motivational quotes or snippets of his morning routine. Today it’s a simple question, handwritten on a black background, “What are you going to accomplish today?” His constant social media presence is a commitment to being an accessible mentor to aspiring entrepreneurs of all levels.
“Building a personal connection and being accessible makes all the difference,” he says. “If you’re a mentor, I think you really need to be there in person as well as through social media. You’ll get left behind otherwise.”
The 31-year-old self-branded Millennial Mentor offers his platform and lessons from the school of real life to startup hopefuls through his new incubator, Fownders, in Newark, New Jersey. “This is something I’ve dreamed of,” Adams says. “So [entrepreneurs] don’t have to be in New York City or Silicon Valley to get involved in an incubator.”
Over the last 15 years, the rise-and-grind entrepreneur has built, backed or invested in nine companies that have all generated over seven-figure profits. He has been involved in everything from a luxury menswear line to a pizza-delivery app. Most notably, he co-founded Elite Daily in February 2012. The website, self-described as the “Voice of Gen Y,” was built for social media, cranking out nearly 100 pieces of content per day and boasting 80 million unique visitors since launching. Last year the Daily Mail purchased Elite Daily for a reported $50 million. Now Adams wants to help others act on their dreams.
In his new video series, Leaders Create Leaders, Adams interviews entrepreneurs, investors and mentors. To him, these collaborations with the likes of Gary Vaynerchuk, Ryan Blair and Lewis Howes create a ripple effect of knowledge. To those who feel they don’t belong in the 9-to-5 world of their parents, he offers the following advice.
Be honest with yourself.
By his own admission, Adams isn’t book smart. He was never one to sit still in class, crack open a textbook or dutifully take notes. “He was always looking for shortcuts,” his father, Robert, recalls with a smile.
True to form as an adult, Adams chose a path that allowed him to work when, where and how he wanted. Yes, he worked harder and longer than the peers he left behind at Caldwell University in his home state of New Jersey. But he also satiated a desire for instant gratification by recruiting mentors instead of reading textbooks. He learned the Wall Street game from his father, who often quizzed him about stocks, asking him to look up the daily numbers and chart the changes. His first business was a forum for investors, which landed him a director of marketing position at age 20.
The key, Adams says, is finding what works for you. For some, it means having the financial stability of a traditional career while developing a passion project on the side. For others, it’s a headfirst dive into unknown risks because they thrive under pressure.
Don’t go it alone.
By 2020 a projected 40 percent of the workforce (60 million people) will be independent contractors, according to an Intuit study. The barriers are lower than ever to do what you love. But as a young Adams learned after a failed technology presentation to a room of investors, business is an unforgiving market. With the guidance of his mentors, he pivoted, reassessed and made his first million by age 24. “When I was at my lowest point, I looked to the person whom I could relate to, who I understood, who also took an alternative path,” Adams says.
He advises making a list of five people in your desired field whom you admire. Reach out to them. Write a letter, an email, a Facebook message. Tell your story. Be direct, sincere and authentic. Mentorship is an exchange, not a charity. “You don’t get a mentor because you asked nicely or are a generally nice person,” he says. “You have to bring value.” His value was a forum for investors to build their network. He showed initiative.
In Leaders Create Leaders, best-selling author Ryan Holiday, who mentored under author Robert Greene, says: “[Mentors] want to capture the energy and knowledge of fresh eyes. They want to find someone who is already going places and help them get to even higher places.”
Finally, Adams says, make a promise to yourself that after you succeed, you will do what you can to pave the way for the next person. In the evolving business landscape, entrepreneurs need to be as much in collaboration as they are in competition.
As Vaynerchuk says in a Leaders Create Leaders episode, “Of course I want to build the biggest, tallest building in the city, but I don’t want to do it by tearing down everyone else’s buildings.”
Work, then work some more.
When Adams was a high school sophomore in Belleville, New Jersey, his accounting teacher requested a meeting with his father. Oh boy, what did he do now? Robert thought. The teacher shared a story of a recent class in which he posed the question, “Do you think it’s right that Patrick Ewing makes more money than a brain surgeon?” Every student said no, presenting the expected responses: “a brain surgeon saves lives,” “brain surgery requires years of expensive training.” Only one student disagreed. When asked for an explanation, Adams responded, “Because a brain surgeon doesn’t fill up Madison Square Garden.” He always seemed to harbor an inherent understanding of business principles.
But his story is also of the hustle-and-grind variety. “There is no secret sauce,” he says. “It can be incredibly tempting to just take days off, because who’s going to tell you no?” An idea remains just that without the action driving it to become the Etsys and Ubers of the world. They started in dorm rooms and family basements. They started with several hundred dollars and a dream.
Even when you’ve “made it”—whatever “it” is for you—that achievement needs to become the next starting point. Adams’ “it” was Elite Daily, and he experienced depression and loss after the website was sold. But it ultimately opened a bigger door, one that allowed him to transition into a lifelong goal of mentorship. For Satya Twena, founder of the Hat-Atelier, one of the only remaining custom hat factories in New York City, “it” was Oprah wearing one of her hats on the cover of O, The Oprah Magazine. It happened twice. “You still have to come in and work hard every day,” she tells Adams in a Leaders Create Leaders episode. “It doesn’t stop.”
“When you open yourself up and say, ‘I can do that. I can become successful. I can overcome this obstacle,’ that’s more powerful than anything else in the world.”
For Adams’ mother, who lived in a one-bedroom apartment with six brothers and sisters, “it” was the ability to overcome losing everything they owned when the apartment burned to the ground. When Adams is discouraged or overwhelmed, she tells him, “If I can figure out how to help rebuild and provide for my family with just the shirt on my back, then you can do anything.” Her strength inspires him.
“When you open yourself up and say, ‘I can do that. I can become successful. I can overcome this obstacle,’ that’s more powerful than anything else in the world,” Adams says.
Never stop learning.
In a short but technologically significant 20-something years, the business world has been turned on its head. No longer does an aspiring entrepreneur have to raise enough funds to open a brick-and-mortar business, hire a marketing firm and a full-time staff. Anyone with an idea can buy a domain name for $10 or less, capture millions of consumer eyes through social media and run the business from their couch.
When Adams was a child, his father would take him on “dream-building exercises,” often driving the gentrified streets of northeastern New Jersey to look at beautiful homes and “see how the other half lives.” Robert pushed him to never stop dreaming of a better future and to capitalize on the tools he had to achieve it.
To Robert, that was a college education. To Adams, it’s a never-ending drive to learn by doing. He’s often working at 4 a.m., putting ideas down on paper and responding to social media fans. “If you just do it because you’re passionate about it, it’s unbelievable what can happen,” he says to his Snapchat followers. “But you have to do it for the passion, not the money. When you do that, money always follows; it never leads.”
It’s a crisp February night in New York. Inside the warmth of Madison Square Garden, Adams, Vaynerchuk and Howes catch a Knicks game. Adams has season tickets near courtside—one of his first big purchases after paying off his parents’ mortgage. The men are laughing and joking over beers. They just got through a meeting where they discussed how to be more vulnerable with their audiences without it appearing like a marketing ploy. Vaynerchuk admits he just gave away his next video idea.
These men, competitors at heart, vying for YouTube views and book sales, don’t see this meeting as anything but a collaboration to improve their own brand without diminishing each other’s.
“Things seem different today,” Adams says thoughtfully. “I believe that Silicon Valley has transcended into a state of mind, a hustle mentality for the go-getters, those who want to be a part of something greater than themselves; those who aren’t willing to make excuses about where they’re from. Technology has given us access to the same resources everywhere. It’s a matter of hard work and truly believing in your idea to make it happen. We’re living in the most opportune time. I believe our generation is one of the greatest in history—definitely the most entrepreneurial. This is our time.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.