The Loose Reins on U.S. Teenagers Can Produce Trouble or Entrepreneurs

Today’s New York Times (Thursday) has a piece by economist Tyler Cowen titled, The Loose Reins on U.S. Teenagers Can Produce Trouble or Entrepreneurs.

Cowen discusses some of the cultural influences responsible for America’s unusually high rate of youth entrepreneurship. I am quoted and My Start-Up Life is referenced. Excerpt:

America’s culture of marketing provided inspiration. Ben Casnocha surveyed his future customers and asked them what services they needed and how much they were willing to pay. He also had to persuade people to do business with a teenager. He had no formal education in marketing but, as a suburban American youth, he was exposed to intense commercial marketing every day. He decided to become an entrepreneur at the age of 12, he says, after being struck by the Apple “Think Different” ad. Critics contend that corporate selling and advertising are dumbing down America’s young. But marketing often motivates or instructs young people. In addition, it can teach them how to think about marketing messages more critically.

The fact that American schooling is less disciplined than that in other countries gives young creators the time and the energy to accomplish something outside their formal education. Despite his intellectual talents, Ben, in his book, admits that he received indifferent grades and had little emotional attachment to most of his formal schooling. Whenever he could, he used sick days to set up meetings for his business.

The longstanding criticism of the American school system is that even in the better schools, too many students just “get by” rather than engage in a rigorous curriculum. This academic leniency is bad for many average or subpar students, but it also allows some students to flourish. Relatively loose family structures have similar effects; American children are especially likely to be working on their own projects, rather than being directed by parents and elders.

Looking for a Graduation Gift?

Do you know someone who’s graduating this spring? Have a teenage nephew? Consider giving the book My Start-Up Life. It can make the perfect gift for any grad interested in leadership, business, or technology.

“My Start-up Life is the best gift you can buy your teenage son or daughter…it will give them confidence in their own abilities and courage to take on new challenges….It is Harry Potter meets Good to Great.”
— Auren Hoffman, CEO, RapLeaf

“What makes his book interesting to me…is that it bypasses the rah-rah, self-congratulation common among the young entrepreneur set, instead capturing, with remarkable lucidity, the complexities of trying to balance being a teenager and running a business. It also replaces the generic advice endemic to the genre (“follow your dreams and it will all work out”) with practical mediations on issues such as the role of luck in big successes and the proper care and feeding of mentors. In the end, this is a serious guide that goes a long way toward deconstructing and explaining what exactly allows the Bens of the world to do what they do.”
— Calvin Newport, PhD Candidate, MIT; Author, How to Become a Straight-A Student

“Casnocha’s debut is a fast read that chronicles his successes and failures in a way that makes them accessible to a student of entrepreneurship at any age. From his tricks-of-the-trade (printing business cards for his advisors) to the shock of his tribulations (including the disaster that kicked “Judy from Bellbeach” off her professional list-serv) to the laugh-out-loud moments of this bildungsroman (parlaying the lesson of learning to “say no” into a prom date), this book entertains and teaches the whole way through.”
— Benjamin Abram, Student, Duke University

“Ben’s first book is well written and explores the early stages of his business ventures. A great read for anyone interested in leadership and/or business.”
— Lindsay Eierman, Student, University of Pennsylvania

“Ben’s message not only to established entrepreneurs, but to entrepreneurs-to-be, is full of inspiration when dealing with the new 21st century world. I am including this book in my course Entrepreneurship for Scientists and Engineers as a must-read reference”.
— Dr. Alberto Correa, Professor, The University of Texas at El Paso

Who Said Publishing Is Dead?

Otto Penzler has an amusing reflection in the New York Sun on last week’s Book Expo of America at the Javits Center. I was there, and sympathize with all his emotions. The sheer scale was astounding: a gazillion publishers, authors, agents, and most of all, books! Who said the publishing industry is dead?

Wandering around the convention center and chatting with people, I became aware of how much I’ve learned in just a few months. I am familiar with most imprints of most major publishers; I know how bestseller lists work, how Amazon processes orders, and how bookstores decide to stock books; I know how Barnes & Noble arranges books; I understand the author-agent-publisher relationship; I know a bunch of people in the book publicity world. And yet even with all this learning, I still feel like a newbie! The world of publishing is so vast and so complicated (and so messed up, in many ways).

All in all, though, it was pretty energizing to be in an environment with 30,000 people passionate about books and the business of delivering them to readers.

Here’s a photo of my co-author (on my new project) Tom Kuegler and our agent Lisa DiMona, and then a photo of Ron Hogan of Galleycat and me.

Dimonakuegler
Hogan

Interview with Marty Nemko

Marty Nemko is probably the top career coach in the country, editing the career section for U.S. News & World Report as well as hosting a popular radio show in the Bay Area. I had the pleasure of being a guest on his show the other week and we chatted for thirty minutes. Here’s the link (Real Player only). Below are the show notes / his questions. I actually haven’t listened to it yet, but I recall an entertaining conversation.

1:50 – Do you really have any doubts that entrepreneurship is The Way?

2:30 – Why not being a medical researcher or heading a non-profit or being a government leader?

3:15 – Is your motivation really is to change the world?

3:30 – If your motivation is a pie, what percentage of the pie is to make big bucks? What percentage is to change the world? The percentage to make fun? What is the real ratio for Ben?

4:06 – I was fascinated by the way you spend a typical day; I want you to describe in micro detail, start from the minute you wake up. Tell me what time you wake up and tell me microscopically what you do because in the details are lots of clues to what makes you different than the millions of nineteen year olds are lacking.

4:31 – Did you cut classes in all of those days?

6:27 – You and me have a drive to get a ton done, how many hours a week would you say you are working?

7:05 – Can you, from your nineteen year old perspective, do you have any ideas as to what differentiates nuts like us from other folks?

7:35 – Were you not motivated before those people?

8:30 – Would you call happy somebody like Mother Teresa who died in poverty helping people, living in squalor and fighting malaria and all of that. I would say that she was content which in my judgment should be the goal of life, but I certainly cannot define that as happy.

9:34 – Could you describe high school for us please?

10:29 – Tell me something more, give me a specific anecdote that comes to mind about your high school life. I know you spent a lot of time cutting and going and doing your business and then going back to school, but you’re still got school and you’re still very much a part of that community. You play basketball for your high school. Give me an anecdote that exemplifies the BS of high school life.

12:38 – Why would you go to college rather than follow the rule of Steve Case or Michael Dell?

12:58 – Opportunity costs means that instead of spending a hundred and fifty thousand, or any brand name school, and years of time when your mind and energy is at its absolute maximum, think what a guy with a potential like Ben Casnocha could be doing in not just starting a business but experiencing and learning and even the dabbling you were saying, look at that as the opportunity cost.

15:00 – One of the things that you’ve done well is you network well. How much of that is simply…you’re a nice guy, you’re an interesting guy, you’re smart, you’re a verbal guy, you’re a handsome guy…very easy to network! What advice do you have for the rest of us who don’t make a great first impression?

15:34 – What if you’re shy? Studies show that 41% of people are shy. What if you’re one of those 41%?

16:35 – One of your great networking successes was you got to attend the Keiretsu Forum and thereby met a billionaire. Walk me through the steps of how you networked your way into that.

18:26 – How did you meet Marc Benioff? I mean Salesforce.com is one of the hottest hosted software companies in the world. How did you meet him?

22:00 – Do you believe that you would have been significantly less successful in the absence of your father? Your father’s tutelage and/or the lead he initially gave you?

23:42 – Tell us about the BlackBerry story.

24:55 – Since then have you checked your Blackberry in the car?

29:56 – What keeps you up at night? What do really think hard about?

31:42 – Being an entrepreneur is the key to being sure you’ll never be obsolete. Do you buy that?

The Best Haiku With “Start-Up”

I’ve always loved haiku. And with my new interest in all things Japan, my interest in haiku has risen correspondingly. (Female sources also whisper from the shadows that poetry helps a man get in touch with his soft side?)

The best haiku experiment I’ve done was for my birthday last year, when I asked dozens of adult friends what they regret not doing when they were younger. Many answered, per my request, in haiku form.

Last week venture capitalist Brad Feld asked his readers to submit their best haikus with the word “start-up” in it. We’re happy to announce the winner, Scott Yates, who will receive an autographed copy of my book My Start-Up Life in the mail:

startups, like parents,
get heaps of good, bad advice.
which bits to ignore?

There were several other good entries which you can read in the comments to Brad’s post. One last-second entry made me chuckle:

Jack Bauer start-up
damnit damnit damnit damn
it damnit damnit

In other book news, here are some reviews that have been trickling in from early readers (who I don’t know personally):

“Ben holds nothing back in his account, describing all the successes and failures, good decisions and mistakes that he experienced along the way. For anyone interested in the entrepreneurial process, this account will prove very revealing.”
David Wilson

“What’s…jaw opening is the level of wisdom and self-awareness he displays. A simply written yet remarkably direct, honest, and, yes, a bit heart-wrenching account about a lost teenagerhood.”
– Barbara Jacobs, American Library Association

“When it comes right down to it, this book should help everyone realize that if you want to get somewhere, you have to continuously battle through sticky situations with an undying desire to learn, willingness to teach yourself, eagerness to find new information, an egoless disposition that makes it easy to ask for help when you need it, and on a very basic level, how to continue putting one foot in front of the other. On a lighter note…this story will not only give you inspiration, but will make you spit coffee if you are not careful. For such a young writer, you wouldn’t expect the entertainment level of the book to be so high. But it is.”
In Bubble Wrap, Business Book Reviews from 800CEORead.com.

“Even if you’re not an entrepreneur, this book offers lots of great anecdotes and ideas that will help you do any job better or improve your career path…. He has a crisp, clear writing style that wastes little time on platitudes and navel-gazing and focuses more on sharing his lessons learned and vision.”
Chip Griffen

“If you are an aspiring entrepreneur, this book will give you the kick in the ass you need to start doing something about it.”
Ryan Healey

#1 Mover and Shaker on Amazon.com

I’m pleased to announce that my book is the #1 Mover and Shaker on Amazon.com today (out of millions of books).

The book is also listed in Amazon’s "Hot Releases" page.

What’s the buzz about? Find out for yourself by buying a copy today. If you forward me your Amazon email receipt by midnight tonight (Monday) you’ll be entered to win a free dinner on me in San Francisco this summer!

Help me beat Harry Potter and The Secret. Buy my book today!

Two Podcasts with Me on Entrepreneurship and the Book

I recently did two podcast audio interviews, each about 20 minutes long. If you want to hear my thoughts on entrepreneurship, my new book, and other interesting topics, check out the following:

1. Interview with my editor Neal Maillet for the inaugural Jossey-Bass podcast. Well produced and expansive.

2. Interview on the Mind Petals network on entrepreneurship.

Book Excerpt: Projecting Your Personal Brand

Below is an excerpt from my forthcoming book My Start-Up Life (comes out May 18). This is a "Brainstorm" about creating and projecting a personal brand. Pre-order the book on Amazon today!

Like companies, you are projecting a brand right now. Each of us is CEO of Me, Inc. The question is whether you are going to cultivate your brand to be as truthful and powerful as it can be.
Your personal brand consists of the following:

•    Your name. “Casnocha” is a distinctive last name. “Ramit” is a distinctive first name (whereas “Ben” is not). If your name is “John Smith,” think about a nickname that will stand out.

•    Your physical appearance. We usually remember one physical attribute about somebody. For me, it’s usually my height. For you, it may be your booming voice, your hairstyle, the piercing color of your eyes, or your choice of clothes.

•    Your work. This is the answer to, “What do you do?”

•    Your affiliations. This includes schools you went to, organizations you’re involved in, charities you support.

•    Your network. Friends and acquaintances.

•    Your online identity. What will someone find when they Google your name? You should own the first result—it should be a personal website or blog that you run. You should also own an email address that is your name (for example, [email protected])

Why is it important to think about your personal brand? First, don’t you want to be known for who you are—in all its wonderful diversity—rather than what you do from nine to five? Too often we subsume our own personal identity to that of our employer. Second, wouldn’t you rather someone walk away from meeting you with an impression that you have defined and that is helpful to you? When I meet someone, I don’t want them to remember the name of my high school, I want them to remember that I sell e-government products to cities and also write a blog.

Your personal brand must—must!—be distinctive. A few months ago I was at a business breakfast with about thirty-five high-powered entrepreneurs and angel investors. We started off the meeting by going around the room with brief introductions. To spice it up, the leader of the breakfast said we had to say our name and our passions. I couldn’t believe how many people said their passions were wine and their family! What a missed opportunity. There’s nothing wrong if wine and family are your two passions, but if everyone else is saying that, then say something different. Suddenly, a balding gentleman took the microphone and said, “Hi, I’m David Zack, I’m a compulsive entrepreneur, investor. I’m just your average guy with an accidental passion for the ambitious. I want to create things with impact.” Whoa. I want to talk to him! Introductions at meetings are a great time to project your personal brand. This is not about making stuff up or trying to manipulate or show off; it’s simply about articulating who you are in a crisp, compelling, and memorable way.

I once spent two hours strategizing with my friend Tim over my one-minute introduction at a big meeting. We analyzed what I wanted to communicate, the dynamics of the room, the needs of the other people, and so forth. Tim and I knew this one minute would be the first time many of the people “interacted with my brand”—and that first impressions last forever.

OK, so you want to invest in your personal brand. How do you increase its “equity in the market?” You are projecting your brand every day. It never ends. The people you meet (or don’t), the articles you write (or don’t), the blog you maintain (or don’t), the conferences you attend (or don’t), the book you write (or don’t), the books you read and review (or don’t), the stand you take on a controversial issue (or don’t). Put yourself out there. Spread your ideas. Act. Ask an odd question. Get involved in your community and in discussion groups. Be a physical presence. Own your online identity. Love who you are and project it into the world by touching those around you.

Spend a small amount of time to reflect on what you stand for, how it’s perceived in the market, and how it should be perceived, and then get out there and deploy it! Make it visible!

Book Excerpt: Confronting Failure (and Trying to Check Email While Driving)

Below is an excerpt from my forthcoming book My Start-Up Life. This is from the chapter "Confronting Failure". Pre-order the book on Amazon.

"Dig in" meant, for me, "Do what it takes" to help the business. And this meant give lots of face time to people who could help Comcate overcome its woes.

Once, a couple years later, I trekked to El Dorado County in California, about a three-hour drive northeast from San Francisco—a good example of my commitment to face time. I had come to enjoy these frequent car journeys, each small town home to some newspaper or diner that can lift any tired traveler’s weary spirits.

After three hours in the car, one hour getting lost, and one hour in my target meeting, I turned around to make the three-and-a-half-hour journey home (three hours plus a half hour getting lost). I made my way to the Highway 50 west corridor, which would take me a good forty miles. Ah, a long stretch of California highway. I cruised up to 80 mph and rolled down the window. The radio that should have spit out "California Dreamin’" by The Mamas and The Papas instead gave only static.

Within twenty minutes I arrived back in radio-signal zone and figured my BlackBerry would reconnect, too. But to confirm my suspicion, I would have to first find it. With my left hand steering to keep me in the left lane, I leaned on my right buttock and with my right arm reached into my bag placed on the floor under the passenger’s seat. Where is it? I didn’t immediately find it with my hand. To give sight to my lost hand I darted my eyes down once to see if I could locate my BlackBerry in the bag next to me.
By the time I blinked my eyes back to the road, it was too late.

My car swiveled just a little to the left, hit a groove, and in only mild panic, I compensated by turning the wheel back right. By now both hands were stationed firmly on the steering wheel. A car in the right lane whizzed by me, and afraid I overcompensated, as they always warn you in driver school, I turned the steering wheel back to the left, hoping to realign in the center of my lane. But in that readjustment I hit yet another groove, this one big, a sign of the old highway on which I rode, and it rattled the car. I compensated right, then left, then right again to meet a slight curve in the road. My speed crept to 85 mph until I realized I was traveling way too fast. I slammed on the brakes, continued to swerve, and then around the next curve my car began spinning. One moment I swayed like a hammock in the wind and the next moment I was controlling maniacal helicopter wings. I did three 360s on the ground, and spun out of my lane farther left into the center divide. Forty feet of grass and shrubs separated the westbound traffic from the busy eastbound traffic. As my car spun—me gripping the wheel strongly and slamming on the brakes—I was certain I would die. This wasn’t exactly the kind of face time I planned on. I wanted face time with Comcate supporters, not with the face of the Grim Reaper.

So this is it, I thought. Now I’m going to die. At least I lived happily and did my thing. Those words immediately came to mind as my car spun, a dummy driver watching his all-too-short life being snatched away because of a reflexive urge to check his BlackBerry while driving.

As my car screeched into the center divide, I prayed it would stop moving so I wouldn’t hit oncoming traffic. I closed my eyes, my foot pressed still harder to the brake pedal. I started coughing. Dust and weeds coupled with the bitter aroma of fear and guilt produced dirtied air I didn’t want to breathe. The car stopped. I broke down, sobbing. My tears weren’t heroic but defeated. I looked at myself with a kind of scorn reserved for consequences brought onto yourself. I was helpless, sweating compulsively, shaking, trying to comprehend a near-death experience.

And then, the BlackBerry email/phone that had caused the distraction that led to my accident, rang. So it was in my bag, after all. Should I even pick it up? What does one do in this situation? I’m sitting in the middle of a center divide in a freeway with my car probably majorly messed up. Do I answer the phone? Sensibly, I didn’t pick it up. Instead, I drove the car off the highway at the next exit to examine the damage. While stopped I checked my voicemail and my emotions did their own 180: a city prospect wanted a follow-up demonstration. . . . Tomorrow! Nice!

The next day, en route to the meeting, the right front tire, which, unbeknownst to me, had been damaged in my off-road excursion, flew off my car while I was driving down the center lane of Highway 101. A police escort stopped all traffic on this major California artery, took me off the road, and called a tow truck. I never made it to the pitch.

***

Failures, obstacles, even car crashes are all part of the start-up experience. Ups and downs are the definitive indication that you are doing something entrepreneurial. If your record is spotless, then you haven’t been an entrepreneur. If the only mistakes you’ve made are on school papers or in mishandling a report in a big corporation, those aren’t spots. It’s the spots from the school of hard knocks that matter. They matter because how you confront real failure is right up there with self-confidence, drive, and luck as a critical ingredient for success.

When you are controlling your own destiny, as most entrepreneurs are, it is easy to place all the blame on yourself. Don’t. Circumstances matter and not all circumstances are within your control. For failure due to circumstances out of your control, try to learn from it and then embrace the mantra, "Shit happens." Instead, figure out what you can control and constantly reinvent it. If it ain’t broke, fix it anyway, because you won’t know when it’s broke to begin with—so preempt failure caused by complacency.

I also looked at all my failures that summer with a sense of urgency. I needed more successes. I was about to start high school and my business needed help. Fast.

Book Excerpt: The Ups and Downs of Self-Teaching Business

Over the next week I’ll be posting some excerpts from My Start-Up Life which hits bookstores May 18th. Today’s excerpt is from Chapter 4 and is about my self-teaching efforts.

Fall 2001 was winding down. What a busy few months. I had learned a great deal about local government and my target market. Now I needed to learn about the mechanics of starting a for-profit business. It felt similar to when my family first got Internet—I thought we only needed a Web browser. Then I learned about Internet Service Providers.

On any given day my excitement and optimism soared or swooned depending on the effectiveness of my self-teaching efforts. With no entrepreneurship curriculum at school, no entrepreneurs in the family, and few programs aimed at youth, I was on my own to scour the public library, follow link after link online, and read business magazines and books. One of my favorite, more successful tactics was to monitor the business conference circuit and email speakers or presenters and request their PowerPoint presentations. Even though I didn’t attend the conference, many speakers still emailed their materials. I also persuaded Golden Gate University in San Francisco to let me audit management and marketing classes for free over the summer.

When this approach worked, the results were glorious. I could search for the definition of "preferred stock" in the privacy of my own thoughts. I could research public relations and ask myself the question, "So how do they make toxic sludge sound good for you?" without offending someone’s third cousin once removed who happens to run a small PR firm and takes pride in her work, thank you very much. I could study accounting over and over and come to enjoy acronyms like FIFO and LIFO, so long as it wasn’t EBITDA, a phrase new MBAs will utter about four times a day, their starched shirts and suits unable to keep corked the smugness a six-letter acronym allows.

When my self-teaching failed, I was a new kid in a big city, hungry for all of it but digesting little: I would read at length about some topic—say, the difference between "horizontal" and "vertical" markets—and then a week later hear someone use those terms in a meeting or read them in an article, and I’d feel like Pope Benedict at Rick Warren’s church: it sounds like Christianity, but what’s up with the T-shirts? There’s a big difference between reading something passively and being able to apply it, describe it, analyze it, all in real time with college-educated and experienced adults. Accumulating random bits of knowledge was better than nothing, but absent real-life experiences to cohere my readings into something meaningful, I was like the A+ student who can’t screw in a lightbulb. This would all change, soon, under the guidance of a mentor. Until then, the business literature accumulating on my bedside repeated one phrase over and over: "business plan."