Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurship, practiced around the world, is hot. There are several reasons why starting a tech startup is easier and cheaper and therefore as popular as ever today: the vanishingly low costs of laptops, storage, video conferencing and other technology tools; talent marketplaces like Odesk and Linkedin; cloud computing infrastructure like Amazon Web Services; distribution platforms like Facebook and Twitter for spreading consumer internet apps; a more structured and accessible angel financing market (facilitated by AngelList and others); and so on.
The entrepreneurship boom is particular pronounced among youth. High school and college kids, when surveyed, are clocking in at record highs in terms of expressed interest in entrepreneurship, and as far as media reports and VC whisperings go, it’s no longer unusual to hear about a teen who’s starting a company or setting up some sort of organization or leading an entrepreneurial cause. Youth benefit from all the aforementioned forces that enable more entrepreneurship generally — especially the tech advances that have made everything cheaper.
But there’s one category of change that, to me, is as important an enabler of entrepreneurship as any other: in the past few years, the body of knowledge about how to start a company, how to code and work with technology, and how to thrive as a businessperson in general has gotten extremely well organized and of course is freely accessible to all.
Back when I got interested in tech entrepreneurship in the year 2000 (I was 12 years old), I harbored a boatload of raw interest but knew next to nothing about technology and business, and didn’t have relationships with any tech/business entrepreneurs, either. There were no entrepreneurship bloggers. Information on the web was scattered and of uneven quality. I remember posting questions about market segmentation on the low-tech forums of IdeaCafe.com and being confused by the answers I got back.
So from day one, I hustled relentlessly to chip away at my ignorance by doing things that seem positively old school by today’s standards.
I went to the San Francisco Public Library and loaned out books on marketing.
I looked up local event listings in Silicon Valley, tracked down the bios and email addresses of the speakers, and, rather than physically attend each public event, the day after the event was scheduled to have happened I emailed the speaker and requested a copy of their PowerPoint deck. The speakers assumed I had attended, and were happy to send me their decks, on everything from pricing strategy to customer service to internet trends.
I lobbied my 7th grade history/economics teacher, who had a collection of Harvard Business Reviews stacked up on his reading shelf, to allow me to copy a few articles in the school’s Xerox machine. I ended up copying thousands of pages of HBR articles into a custom binder that I kept for myself. I had to stop when a school administrator caught me using the copy machine and insisted, kind of incredibly, that I should buy the re-print rights to articles I wanted for myself instead of photocopying them.
I cold called the business school dean at Golden Gate University and asked if I could audit their business classes, and they agreed. I sat in several classes on management and marketing for free.
I went to Goodwill and bought cassette tapes of Tony Robbins’ original classic Personal Power — my first introduction to the self-help genre. (I have agency in the world!)
I attended a “tech camp” at the University of San Francisco to learn Basic (but switched to HTML and CSS). It was okay. There were no good online classes for on-going instruction; I had to teach myself basic HTML by viewing the source code on web sites, copying the code into BBEdit, and then deleting and editing lines of code line-by-line until I figured out what each command did.
I met with volunteer SCORE counselors at the local SBA office and they taught me about income statements, balance sheets, and cash flow statements.
And I reached out to businesspeople in the community to begin building a professional network. The very first person in my network was my neighbor Mike, to whom my first book is co-dedicated. He was the first node, and he introduced me to a few people, and it grew from there.
Today, on each of these fronts, one has a much easier go of it. For example, sites like VentureHacks and Ask the VC and Mark Suster’s blog and Quora threads explain every aspect of the startup process. LinkedIn is now a directory of most people in white collar industries, and there are many groups there and on Facebook for young entrepreneurs to meet each other and connect. On the tech side, CodeAcademy and several others teach basic tech skills in a structured manner on the web.
It’s not only that there’s more information easily available today, but there’s refined curation. While I learned a bunch hustling about in my teens, I also wasted untold cycles of time. I read bad books; I met people who, in hindsight, weren’t worth the time; I read irrelevant articles while overlooking relevant ones; etc. By contrast, today there are various “best of” lists and other crisp navigational guides to finding very best content related to your business challenge.
I should say I’m aware that the “paucity” of free knowledge and resources available in year 2000 that I’m describing (when I began my quest of self-education) far exceeded what existed in years prior. So I had a huge advantage getting started, from a knowledge-perpsective, than prior generations. Even as we’re now all lapsed by the current teen cohort, as they whiz by us at faster and faster speeds…
Bottom Line: Democratized, free entrepreneurship-related knowledge and networks is the game changer for facilitating ever more youth entrepreneurship. It’s a great thing for the world. It’s a great thing for the young, ambitious, and inexperienced. Even if it makes me a little jealous of today’s teens!