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My first lead ever, in my first business, would not do business with me because of my age. “We like you,” he said, “but if we ever have a tax investigation, we need someone with white hair. You’re just too young.”
I’ll never forget those words.
Although, by definition, ageism is aimed usually at the elderly, there are sectors where the individual’s youth can be viewed as a negative trait, or as an outright barrier to entry.
Politics is one such arena. At a time when the U.S. is starting to look very much like a gerontocracy, it is not inconceivable to think that companies might hesitate to hire younger lobbyists. Lobbying is a key interest in big business, after all.
In my case above, the industry was accounting.
Here are some things I learned as a young entrepreneur that helped me make it through those early days.
1. Don’t take it personally
You need a thick skin as an entrepreneur. If I got personal about every bit of discrimination leveled against me in business — whether it be my age, the color of my skin or something else — I’d spend my life either very depressed or very angry.
These emotions are not conducive to good business.
Stubborn determination is one of those essential traits of an entrepreneur that will get you through most situations unscathed. Simply keeping on going is a good rule of thumb. Bias against young people in business is rarely malicious, so don’t take it personally.
2. Take it one client at a time
The problem with being a young entrepreneur is that you likely lack experience, references or both.
But all you need is one client to start gaining that experience.
After that dud of a meeting where I was told I was too young, I kept grinding on and pushing forward until I eventually got that one client. A few months later, I got another one. And then it started to snowball. My hair didn’t even have to turn white for it to happen! (And it still hasn’t — knock on wood.)
As the old adage goes, it’s far more expensive to get in a new client than to keep an existing one. So, once you’ve got that first client, break your back to keep them. Then do that with the next one. If you have enough clients and references, few people will care how young you are.
3. Show off your moves
No one can argue with experience and achievements. By the time Mark Zuckerberg launched “thefacebook.com,” he was already known as something of a programming guru in college. His age certainly didn’t detract the likes of MTV and other big players from wanting to buy his company out.
Zuckerberg had shown off his moves.
These days, this is particularly easy to do for coders. Online open source repositories allow anyone to show off their stuff to the world and make a name for themselves. That’s how Matt Mullenweg did it, turning Automattic into a $155 million-per-year business.
Whatever your sector, find a way to show off what you can do.
4. Find a mentor
It’s not what you know but who you know — a hackneyed phrase that is as true today as it ever was.
Finding mentors is one of the key services our company offers new entrepreneurs. It is vital for business success.
Mentorship is not only about having a more experienced person guide you, but is also key for basic introductions and soothing the minds of those of the “Oh, you’re too young” mentality. The world abounds with stories of business people who achieved success as a result of crucial introductions.
Having a mentor also forces relatively inexperienced entrepreneurs to work harder, as they try to live up to the standards of their mentor.
The best mentors won’t recommend you to someone unless they believe in you. So, when a mentor does recommend you to a fellow connection, it goes a long way towards obliterating any concerns about your age.
5. Take it on the chin — because it’s temporary
Humility is essential for business success. I had to learn humility fast in business. I come from humble beginnings, so I didn’t have the luxury of commanding enormous amounts of funds to get my business going. I had to do it all by the sweat of my brow.
That teaches you a lot. It teaches you that success belongs to those who put in the time. And, sometimes, when you’re still young and full of energy, it helps to just “take it on the chin” until you have put in the time and do have a lot to show for your skills.
“Ageism” applied to youth has less to do with the number of candles on your birthday cake and more to do with what you’ve achieved.
It all comes down to experience.
If you focus on that — on getting more done in less time — you’ll weather the occasional “Oh, you’re too young!” comments that will inevitably come your way in the beginning.