A global generation has grown up with digital media and it is altering the landscape for small business. According to Harvard internet experts John Palfrey and Urs Gasser in their book Born Digital, today’s under-30s are the first citizens to be labelled “digital natives” rather than the previous generation’s “digital immigrants” – creating a generational divide and a unique sector in the job marketplace. Digital natives are so plugged in to communi-cations and creative technologies that a world without virtual reality, text messaging and MP3 players is, to them, unrecognizable.
Digital natives not only display a unique proficiency in these technological arenas, they also want to develop them further to find more efficient modes of interacting with their peer group. They understand that infrastructure is no longer needed to start a business – just a computer and an idea. And today’s up-and-coming workforce is not interested in the security offered by working for someone else: a Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll found that 72 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds wanted to own a business rather than work for one. Value shifts mean that today’s entrepreneurial mindset is often connected to an ethical one, where a business idea could contribute to the social good using market mechanisms to solve social problems.
Become a Native Speaker
The innovations accomplished by some young digital entrepreneurs have brought significant rewards: social networking enterprise Facebook made 24-year-old CEO Mark Zuckerberg the world’s youngest self-made billionaire. Facebook defines a generation whose notions of connectedness, privacy and “community organizing” are different to those of the over-30s. Businesses who market themselves on sites such as these demonstrate an understanding of the digital native generation, and are more likely to be noticed by their customers.
Digital natives can harness their technological know-how in a number of ways. They can start their own companies; they can engage in “reverse mentoring” to help those of an older generation understand the modern marketplace; or they can combine the two: reverse mentoring is a business route for digital natives who want to use their unique understanding of technology to help others. Twenty-four-year-old Tyler Dikman discovered a gap in the market when he founded CoolTronics (www.cooltronics.com) in Tampa at the age of 15. From there, the company now has four locations providing on-site support for a wide variety of office technologies. Large companies such as Time Warner and GE have invested in reverse mentoring for their senior executives by capitalizing on the technical knowledge and fresh perspectives of the digital native pool.
Back to the Future
Small businesses might consider using the technological expertize of a digital native to explore online business opportunities and discover how to utilize social networks and user-generated media. Alongside networking giants, lucrative possibilities still abound for smaller networking sites targeting specific industries or niche markets (small businesses can also utilize networking sites to find new employees, clients and vendors). Bronx-based Palace Plumbing and Heating Supply’s Frank Hartman often consults with his 24-year-old son Brad on various aspects of the business. Brad urged his father to begin posting product information online and is currently updating the website and helping to expand the business into Manhattan. Even if you aren’t in a position to hire a full-time employee, you can host a focus group for digital natives to give you feedback on your product or service. Local colleges are a good source of candidates, and employing an intern might prove a worthwhile (and relatively low-cost) investment for a small business interested in learning new skills from their digital natives while imparting the traditional skills they might lack.
Digital natives have finally come of age: they are the workers, customers and citizens not of tomorrow but of today. Business owners who recognize them as the latest big group of consumers to target (and who recognize the unique advantages that their entrepreneurial mindset adds to the marketplace) are the ones most likely to embrace the future with ease.