What You Can Learn From a Young CEO

The next generation of entrepreneurs have some good lessons about working on the cheap and being flexible.
May 10, 2012

Not so long ago, if you wanted to learn how to run your business better, the natural thing to do was to turn to an older, more experienced mentor. But during the past few years, that’s changed. The person who can teach you the most may be someone two years out of college who knows more about technology than you do or is an expert on building a lean startup.

My business partner, Elizabeth MacBride, and I have found this to be true at our own startup, the $200KFreelancer, a site to help independent professionals who need to make a good living. Whether we needed to select a blogging platform or figure out how to keep costs down, we invariably found that younger CEOs were great sources of ideas.

Here are a few lessons I’ve learned from twentysomething CEOs and the folks who know them well.

1. Entrepreneurship isn’t as risky as people make it sound. Yes, you’re taking a chance by starting a business, but there’s plenty of insecurity in the corporate world, too. And in some cases, there is less opportunity and financial payoff than their used to be. “Many young people are looking at their job prospects, not seeing what they like and saying, `You know what? Entrepreneurship looks a lot more attractive than it did five years ago,’” says Andrew Sherman, a partner at the law firm Jones Day, business instructor at the University of Maryland and author of Harvesting Intangible Assets.

2. Income isn’t the only thing that’s important. We’ve all got to find a way to pay the bills. But sometimes, being satisfied with less money for a while can open more possibilities in life.

Hanging out with young people who don’t yet feel the financial pressures—both real and self-imposed—that many mid-career professionals do may help you redefine your priorities and free you to pursue your entrepreneurial dreams. As Sherman puts it, if everyone prioritized income above all else, no one would be an entrepreneur. “Younger people will tend to look at things with a more balanced set of priorities than you and I have, when we have mortgage payments and kids’ tuitions,” Sherman says.You may not be able to skip the mortgage or tuition, but you may be able to scale back your vacation plans, skip that kitchen renovation or drive your car for another couple of years to free up money you need to grow your business.

3. Don’t get caught up in pricey corporate trappings. Just ask Andrew Schrage, 25, who co-founded Money Crashers Personal Finance site three years ago, after living the cushy life working at a hedge fund. “I bought used computer equipment and office furniture,” he recalls. “And to market the business, I utilized free options, such as social media. I set up accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, and used them to reach as many potential readers as possible.” For videoconferencing, he initially paid for GoToMeeting but, finding his needs were sporadic, switched to Skype for free. As for networking, he opts for inexpensive options such as Meetups and LinkedIn.

4. Try information-based marketing. Building good relationships with bloggers in your industry can be a great way to spread the word about your small business, provided you offer them useful information, according to Poornima Vijayashanker, 29, author of the blog Femgineer and founder of Silicon Valley-based Bizeebee, a startup that helps entrepreneurs such as yoga studio owners grow their businesses. “We talk to a lot of yoga bloggers and generate content for them,” she says. “That content can be anything from an exclusive article to an infographic.”

She’s also found that teaming up with business coaches—whose numbers have proliferated in recent years—on programs such as webinars can help to introduce her business to a broader audience. For instance, her company partnered with one business coach on a series of webinars helping individual yoga instructors to improve their operations. “Having Bizeebee sponsor the event, host the event, and even pick the instructor shows that we care about our customers,” she says.

5. Quit babysitting your employees. Younger CEOs don’t insist that all of their employees show up to corporate headquarters, so their managers can keep a watchful eye on everyone. They are generally far more comfortable with a far flung workforce, often made up of contractors who work from home, and have no beef with using tools like Skype to stay in close touch. This helps them to build loyalty. “People don’t necessarily want to come into the office anymore if they know they can work remotely and still be effective,” says Vijayashanker, whose six-employee firm has a distributed work force—including one contractor in Russia.

Worried that your employees wouldn’t get anything done if you gave them this kind of freedom? “If you set up the projects in a way that people have to deliver things at a certain time and are always communicating with each other by Skype or online video, there’s not going to be a way they can mess around,” Vijayashanker says. Though her workers don’t come into a shared office, she still organizes weekly meetings, including one-on-ones, and in-person gatherings periodically. “Everything takes place online,” she says.

I’m all for that idea. Both my business partner Elizabeth and I have busy journalism careers and young children, and though we’ve worked together on many projects over the years and talk frequently—including a regular Friday morning call—it dawned on us recently that we’ve only met in person once. These days, it just doesn’t matter. We both get our work done every week, and $200KFreelancer is growing just fine.

Elaine Pofeldt is an independent journalist and editorial consultant who specializes in small business, entrepreneurship and careers. She is co-founder of $200KFreelancer, a community for freelance professionals, and Endhousearrest.com, for homeowners looking to sell.

Pictured: Money Crashers founders Andrew Schrage and Gyutae Park

Image courtesy Money Crashers