Getting a business off the ground is hard and often feels like one obstacle after another. You need a compelling idea. You need funding. You need customers. You need to learn how to market – the list of things you need is endless, but perhaps the most critical thing you will need is people to take you seriously. It can be hard to get that no matter your age, but as a young entrepreneur you will often be faced with more challenges establishing credibility with potential investors, your team and peers, potential partners and even your customers.
Don’t get me wrong. Everyone loves a young-entrepreneur success story, and it’s worth a brief mention that the founders of Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Walmart were all between the ages of 20 and 26 when they founded those iconic companies. But sometimes it takes a bit more effort for young entrepreneurs to get people to listen. Here are a few things I’ve learned on my own journey as a young entrepreneur about establishing credibility:
Credibility by Association
Building the right network of people is what I personally believe to be the most important ingredient in business, and the people you surround yourself with out of the gate will also drive others’ opinions of you.
I realize this sounds great on paper, but it’s also a chicken and egg scenario – how do you start piecing together a network until you have the credibility? In my view it boils down to three simple things – own what you don’t know, talk to everyone you meet like they have something to teach you, and do what you say you are going to do.
You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know
One of the quickest things you can do as a young founder is work to become a subject matter expert because, unlike building your resume, it’s something within your control. So many aspects of starting a business require patience and timing, but your ability to learn absolutely everything you can about your industry can be accelerated quickly by sheer work ethic and hours put in (something the majority of young entrepreneurs are already good at). Proving that you know what you are talking about establishes a huge amount of respect because people will be confident you have done your homework.
However, it’s also critical to own what you DON’T know. One of the easiest ways to lose credibility is to come across like you believe you know it all. Seasoned professionals will see right through you, but if you approach people with humility and are open to what they can teach you, you will begin to foster a great network of allies and mentors.
Everyone Has Something to Teach
It’s estimated that 11,000 new business books are published each year (not counting self-published works), and while the jury is out on how effective they are, the overall message is clear – people want to share what they have learned. I’m not saying run out and buy all of these, or even to buy any of them, but if you approach every new person you meet with an open-mind and a genuine interest in what they do, the path they took to get there, and even go so far as to ask them pointed questions like, “what is the best business lesson you have learned so far?” I guarantee you will walk away with something valuable. It might be a specific takeaway you can apply to your entrepreneurial journey right away, it might be something that helps you down the road, or it might just be the start of a solid relationship to add to your network of credibility, but it’s all valuable.
Do What You Say You Will
It’s actually that black and white – if you say you are going to do something, do it. A lot of young entrepreneurs (myself included) are very ambitious in their thinking. This is frequently touted as one of the most positive traits of the young entrepreneur, and I made the mistake several times early on thinking that ambition alone would help me be taken seriously. That’s just not the case. People are obviously much more impressed when you have real progress to show and it’s clear that your ambition translates to reality. I’ve made this a golden rule in business and everyday life.
Embrace Your Age
As young entrepreneurs we sometimes face so much skepticism that it can be discouraging, but I’d encourage you to flip that thinking – be empowered by your age. Use the time to soak up knowledge both from your own research and by learning from everyone around you. If you ask smart questions, establish your network, and deliver on your promises, you will be taken seriously by your industry and your peers, no matter the age gap.
Eliot Buchanan is cofounder and CEO of Plastiq, which he launched when he was 22.