In 2009, two audio engineering students in Nashville, Tenn., got an idea during a friend’s recital at a music college. After spending a bundle on a music education, the students’ parents would probably be willing to spend a few hundred dollars more for a quick, quality recording of their recitals, says then-sophomore Jake Jorgovan. “We created an order form and blasted it out.”
With no mortgage, no kids, and the luxury of still riding Mom and Dad’s health insurance, student entrepreneurs have an edge. “I’m totally fine living off a couch and hardly any food for a month, but no way would I want my wife and kids doing it,” says Garrett Gee, a graduate of Brigham Young University and co-founder of Scan, a mobile scanning technology company.
Each year, the Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) sponsors the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards (GSEA), offering $150,000 in prizes to winners. Jorgovan and Gee, finalists in the 2011 competition, also received networking and mentorship opportunities. Kevin Langley, chairman of EO and CEO of New Orleans-based Ellis Construction, says the road toward a youthful business dream is anything but easy: “For these students to not only be getting an education but also to be starting a business is fairly significant and offers valuable lessons.”
So take note of the lessons from these successful young entrepreneurs.
#1 Create Community.
Jorgovan and his partner, Kevin Fulda, quickly recognized the intense competition for their recital recording service (“There was an influx of a lot of people creating and editing video out of their home.”), so while the music school gigs paid the bills, they started focusing on more innovative video techniques, designing graphics to go with LED projection at larger-scale events. And they started making connections in corporate and professional music circles. “It was a matter of networking around town, going out to mixers—any chance I could get to meet people,” Jorgovan says.
Of course, networking as a student entrepreneur has its drawbacks. “Early on, when I was under 21, going to networking events and not being able to drink and trying to hide the fact that I was underage was kind of odd,” Jorgovan says. “Clients were like, ‘Come out to bars with us and have a drink,’ and I had to say, ‘I’m busy; I can’t,’ so they didn’t realize how young we were.”
Mike Wahl, who co-founded the corporate wellness and safety company Definitions at 24 and was the 2011 GSEA Graduate Winner, had similar age-related challenges. “I look very young and am very young,” he says, “and our ideas are innovative. My business partner and I tried to break into an industry. At first it was difficult to crack that shell. Once we did, the companies realized we could help and innovate their systems.”
#2 Get (and Use) a Mentor.
Through networking, Jorgovan and Fulda got local concerts and corporate gigs. Jorgovan also changed his minor to entrepreneurship and gained mentors in Belmont University’s Entrepreneurship Program, which prepares students for careers in entrepreneurship through experiential classroom application and co-curricular programming. One mentor helped the team get its first big break: The 2010 Honda Civic Tour for the band Paramore. “I tried not to freak out,” Jorgovan says, “but it was a really big opportunity at the time.”
Mentors are integral to the community you create around your business. Wahl, whose company has grown from a personal training business in St. John’s, Newfoundland, to a full-service wellness provider for major industrial organizations, says his best tip for older entrepreneurs is to mentor. “Share with everyone. People think they can find the answer in a book or a video or some digital way of doing it, but nothing beats experience or stories. There may be a generational difference in the way we communicate, but mentorship is so valuable. I was mentored my whole life. We’re fortunate with our facility because we have businesspeople who come in, and I’ve got the ability to run an idea by a senior vice president at night over bench presses.”
Wahl stresses the importance of looking past communication differences. “While the young people may be brazen or appear brazen, they really want the coaching and the mentorship—and they can benefit from it.” And that mentorship can go both ways. A young entrepreneur’s passion and drive is often a much-needed antidote to complacency for a more established businessperson. “Have some faith in the younger generation,” Wahl says.
#3 Drive Your Destiny.
Today, Jorgovan and Fulda, now co-founders of the Nashville-based Rabbit Hole Creative, have an impressive list of clients: Rihanna’s 2011 tour, Cee Lo Green’s appearance on Saturday Night Live, the Dolly Parton World Tour, Cirque du Soleil and Mutemath. Since their first year making graduation videos and pulling in about $19,000, they’ve stayed at the forefront of video technology and boosted their revenue to a healthy six-figure income in 2011.
Jorgovan says, “I hated the thought of working for someone else. I’ve always wanted to do my own thing and chase my dreams.” When Rabbit Hole got its first big concert project in 2010, the founders wanted to use a new technology called projection mapping (creating animated images with video and light on a solid background) but had no experience in the process. So we “dove in and figured it out along the way,” Jorgovan says. “Since then mapping has become one of our biggest revenue streams.
“We consider ourselves innovators through video, so whatever the new technology is we want to be always dabbling with it….There’s not too terribly many companies doing mapping right now, so it gives us a competitive advantage.”
That advantage is no accident. Jorgovan and his team still set intentional plans for what space they want to occupy next. They encourage other entrepreneurs to be in control of their destinies, “not being guided by your clients or your customers, but getting to the point where you can start to choose the customers you want, work on the projects you want, figure out where you want to be in a few years and how to get there.”
That takes focus, which may also mean turning down projects that don’t mesh with your vision for your company. “We’ve had opportunities to go onto sports camps and train athletes,” Wahl says, “but the reality is, we recognize we’re the only ones doing [corporate wellness], and we can focus on that one thing. So we decided not to be all things to all people. It’s hard to do everything really well. Even a small niche of a huge market is huge. It’s more than anyone would ever need.”
#4 Learn by Doing.
“While I was going to school at Brigham Young University,” says Garrett Gee of Scan, “I’d learn something about business but not really internalize it until I did it myself.” He carried that lesson into the running of his business and recently held what he calls “the Hackathon.”
“Hacking is a slang word for coding or engineering,” Gee says. “Me and the other co-founder were complaining, ‘What’s the deal with this guy? Why isn’t this product done? Why are these things moving so slowly?’ We didn’t have any answers. So on the fly [we brought] everyone into the office where they could be in the same space working in front of us on a very clear-cut goal. We’ll see who the bottlenecks are. We’ll do spring-cleaning.”
Thus, the Hackathon. They brought the team together at the San Francisco office and said, “This is what we want to build. Go.” The team and a few potential new hires spent 52 straight hours in that office. “We had a chef come, we had a masseuse come, we had stow-away beds they could haul out if they needed a rest,” Gee says. “At the end each person gave a personal accounting for what they did or didn’t accomplish.
“I had set out goals and told them, ‘After this 52-hour time limit, I intend on hiring and firing some people based on the results.’ We had 16 people participate—I hired one person, and I fired everyone from our team but one guy.”
The lesson? Really look at what’s going on in your organization. Don’t just read reports. Work side by side with your team to see what’s working—and what’s not. “The Hackathon was a situation where we had a problem, and there was probably a traditional way of solving it, but we found our own way,” Gee says.
#5 Take Time to Play.
The Hackathon may not be your cup of tea, but one important takeaway to glean from young entrepreneurs is to keep things fresh. “Always try to stay young at heart,” Jorgovan says. “Try not to get to a point where you’re worn down by being systematic with the day-to-day. Try to keep youthful creativity. We always look at Pixar: They try to remember what it’s like to be a child. I think you can apply that to anything.”
In fact, Jorgovan says, “Some clients look at us and see we’re young and they’ve been in the industry for a while, but they want to work with us to make themselves seem modern to their demographic.”
Susan Lindner, CEO of Emerging Media and EO member, believes older entrepreneurs too often discount the newbies’ significance. “The young entrepreneurs and what they bring to the real economy is undervalued,” Lindner says. She urges established businesspeople to pay attention to how their younger counterparts experiment without fear. “The most obvious is their grasp of the digital landscape,” Lindner says. What seems to an older generation like wasted time on Facebook or Google+ is valuable networking and relationship-building.
Lindner adds that these students are “twisting the entrepreneurial diamond and seeing a new facet [that] really changes the way they look at things.” That perspective inspires them to work the long hours necessary to launch a business.
All that hard work is one thing every entrepreneur has in common. As Jorgovan says, “We put ourselves through hell multiple times, but as long as we know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, we keep going.”
The Global Student Entrepreneur Awards
The Global Student Entrepreneur Awards (GSEA) recognize outstanding high school, undergraduate and graduate student entrepreneurs.
In 2011, the GSEA, hosted by the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, received 1,600 nominations from 42 countries around the world. Past winners include the 2011 winner, Ludwick Marishane of South Africa, who founded Headboy Industries based on a product called DryBath for people in communities without access to running water. Today, Marishane sells DryBath to airlines for use on long-haul flights and to governments for soldiers in the field.
One finalist from 2010, Catherine Cook, co-founded MyYearbook.com at 16. Today the site boasts tens of millions users and recently merged with Quepasa for $100 million.