I started young

If only somebody would do this research. Oh, wait. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you weren’t born into money in America, the only quasi-reliable path to significant wealth is to find a way to own the company.

A couple of days ago, I wrote a newsletter about my theory that some part of the disappearing workforce (the folks who quit jobs, supposedly with no other plan and nothing lined up)—and especially the younger workers among them—might actually be hacking their way into side hustles and entrepreneurship to make up for the lost income.

Maybe they’ll be successful, maybe they won’t. It certainly doesn’t account for everyone. But, these are the kind of career-switches that might not show up immediately in the Department of Labor statistics.

If it’s true, it strikes me as a fundamental mindset switch—one that might bode well for the next generation.

Now, I thought about two things after writing that newsletter:

  • First, it’s too bad I don’t have some decent research at hand about the factors that make it more likely that young people will grow up to become entrepreneurs.

  • Second, maybe I ought to just go ahead and do it myself—conduct a survey of entrepreneurs, get their high-level thoughts on what led them to make the choices that they did, maybe interview some of them—

Wait a minute, I realized. I did exactly that five years ago.

I surveyed 118 successful entrepreneurs—some of whom had started well-known companies, and others who were more the “millionaire next door” types—and then followed up with interviews.

(In my defense, I’m insanely prolific—thousands of articles and columns over the last few years—and it is not at all hard for me to forget previous projects. Also, I have to point out that yesterday’s newsletter was on memory research and adult neurogenesis. It’s like they sometimes say: All writing is autobiographical.)

Anyway, this struck me as worth revisiting (especially because for whatever reason, not that many people read my article about this project at the time).

Bottom line, the vast majority of those surveyed—110 out of 118, so 93 percent—told me the same story about why they thought they had success as entrepreneurs later in life—some version of: “I started young."

Beyond that, they broke down into four categories.

1. The ones who said they learned through personal observations.

These were the ones who were motivated because they learned by observing as children and young adults, rather than by doing. (I’ll include one representative quote for each of these):

"[My biggest influence] was realizing the tradeoff my parents made in immigrating to the United States. While neither of them pursued a career in entrepreneurship per se, the risk/reward profile they took was seared in my brain."

—Sam Yagan, CEO of ShopRunner, former cofounder of OKCupid and SparkNotes, among others.

2. Entrepreneurs who cited childhood experiences.

The second category involved people who started lots of businesses as kids. Even though these were often small-scale, these folks told me that they sort of, "just did it," and the experience inspired more experiments.

"In elementary school (age 9 or 10), I sent out flyers: taking trash cans in, getting groceries, watering plants, etc. I then hired out older kids to do the work and charged a 50 percent booking fee.... kind of highway robbery now that I think about it! I ended up making between $50 to $200 a day, which was insane!"

—Chef Daniel Shemtob, co-founder and executive chef at TLT Food, a fast-casual restaurant chain.

3. Entrepreneurs who said they learned out of necessity.

The third category involves kids who had no choice but to become financially self-sufficient at an early age.

"I grew up on welfare ... raised by a strong, no-nonsense single mother. ... I got my first job at age 11 washing dishes at a restaurant. Eventually, I dropped out of high school so that I could work full-time to bring in money for my mother and brothers, working several other jobs."

--Sheldon Yellen, CEO at BELFOR, the world's largest disaster recovery firm.

4. Entrepreneurs whose parents created necessity.

Finally, this might be the most interesting or surprising category: It’s the ones who said the reason they tried to start businesses as kids was that their parents decided to teach them to do so.

"I was an Army brat. My best friend and I ... imported candy from the U.S., ate as much as we wanted, and sold the rest . We were turning $50 a day during lunch breaks. Unfortunately, [we] ran into regulatory trouble with the assistant principal."

--Trey Gordner, founder and CEO at Koios

All in, I’ve probably spent about a dozen years writing on this topic, going back to my book, The Intelligent Entrepreneur. And, it’s not that I think business success or stability is the key to happiness—but frankly, all else being equal, it’s probably better to have financial stability than to not have it.

And if it takes a global pandemic to spur a new generation to think creatively about how they might make a living without having to work for someone else—well, I’m not going to say it makes the whole thing worth it, but it might be a pretty cool silver lining.

Anyway… call for comments. Am I on the right track? The wrong one? If you consider yourself an entrepreneur, did it start in childhood? (And if you never thought of that for yourself, was it lack of interest or something else?) Let us know in the comments.

Leave a comment

7 other things worth your time

This first one is longer than usual. Here’s why.

I have yet to write about the Facebook Papers, which I think is one of the most important stories in the world right now, and largely explains why and how this absurdly profitable and addictive company has helped poison discourse, threaten democracy, and seemingly remain on top regardless.

(Why haven’t I written? It’s largely a question of resources. I’ll probably take a whole newsletter soon and explain the paradox that I face every day, and ask for your thoughts about how to handle things like this.)

For now, however, at least to get started, let me just recommend an interview with Kara Swisher, who is probably the most insightful journalist out there who has had the chance to spend a lot of time with Mark Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg has almost absolute power over one of the most powerful companies in the world, and this long quote sums up Swisher’s take on the situation nicely:

I think Mark has tried to learn. I just think he’s not up to the task, so it doesn’t really matter if he’s tried to learn. He’s bitten off more than he can chew. [H]e’s learning on the job, except it’s the world. … He doesn’t welcome criticism anymore. …

He’s just ill-equipped for the task ahead of him. … He runs a big city that he thinks is running fine, but nobody has water or police or anything else. …

It’s so easy to make him evil. I don’t think he’s evil. That’s sort of an easy way out of it. There’s a really famous W. H. Auden quote. “Evil is unspectacular and always human.” Mark is very human. That’s the problem.

(The Intelligencer, New York Magazine)

OK, 6 other things…

Thanks for reading, as always. Photo: Pixabay. I wrote about some of this before at Inc.com. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.