What you can learn from the newest crop of entrepreneurs
by Kate Pavao, October 2009
Generation Y likes starting businesses — and they’re pretty good at it. In Upstarts!: How GenY Entrepreneurs are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit from Their Success, Inc. magazine writer Donna Fenn profiles a wide range of companies started by young people born between the mid-70s and early 90s and identifies their shared secrets of success. Here, she tells Profit Online readers how this generation built their businesses differently than the rest of us—and what makes so many of their companies recession-proof. Plus, find out what every manager should know about keeping Generation Y happy at work.
Profit Online: How did you become interested in young entrepreneurs?
Fenn: I’ve been covering entrepreneurship and small business trends for over 25 years now, and I pay attention to trends I see coming down the line. A couple years ago, I started noticing more and more shockingly young CEOs. It struck me that something really interesting and important was going on. I wanted to know more about who these young people were and what was motivating them to start businesses and if their businesses looked different from the businesses I’d covered in the past.
Profit Online: Your book is full of advice that business leaders can glean from these young entrepreneurs — from harnessing the power of social networking to paying attention to changes in customer needs. What is the biggest lesson they can learn from this generation?
Fenn: One of the most important things about this generation is in the very first chapter—they are extremely collaborative. They’re wonderful at taking advantage of every resource available to them whether that’s their professors, alumni, strategic partners, or their parents, roommates and friends. They are not huddled away in their spare bedrooms or garages fussing with technology on their own. They’re out gathering information and telling people what they’re doing.
This just blew me away because I’m from the generation where we think, “Oh, don’t tell anybody your great idea because they might steal it.” And they’re like, “Oh, I’m going to tell everybody my great idea because how else will I get advice and possibly funding?” They grew up in a world of teamwork, with peewee soccer, group science projects, or volunteering in foreign countries. with their pals. They’re very used to group activities and to teamwork and that’s how they approach company building as well.
That’s something big they have to teach: Reach out and use resources. Does it take a village to build a company? Maybe not, but it sure is a lot more fun that way. And maybe it is better. Maybe it allows you to grow in a quicker and better way.
Profit Online: Thinking about this generation as workers, what do their managers need to keep in mind?
Fenn: This generation tends to be more entrepreneurial. So companies that can provide young workers with that opportunity internally are going to have the best chance of keeping them as productive and engaged employees.
That doesn’t mean setting them loose. Creativity doesn’t thrive in a state of chaos. It doesn’t for any generation; especially not this generation. This is a scheduled, organized generation that hates being bored. They don’t need to babysat, but give them guidelines and be really clear about expectations. They want to know how they can succeed and they want the tools to be able to succeed.
This is the first generation that expects work to be meaningful — young entrepreneurs integrate social missions with their business goals—and they want work to be fun. Fun is a big thing for them. Fun is a very big thing.
Profit Online: Towards the end of your book, you talk to them about the recession. Were you surprised by how upbeat they were?
Fenn: They seem a lot chirpier than you’d expect them to sound. But remember that while some of them are married with children, very few of them feel the pressures of mortgage, tuition, and all that. They can afford to go really lean. And because a lot of them have virtual workplaces and feel comfortable working virtually, they can keep their overhead low.
I was surprised by how many young entrepreneurs said that the recession has been good for their companies. Those are the ones who have really found a different way to serve customers in a more competitive way. In a recession, companies are always looking to cut back expenses. If you can provide a service that helps a company or an individual save money in some way, then the recession is going to be good for you.