I started my first business when I was 19 years old, and that was long before youth entrepreneurship was celebrated the way it is now. I had a retail showroom and a service shop, employees, inventory, bank debt and all the joys and stresses that came with them.
I remember getting a fair bit of attention for starting a business at that age, but it didn’t seem like a big deal to me. To me it made perfect sense; after all, I was single, had no dependents and was still living at home. My future seemed like a blank page that allowed me to write my own story.
Being young wasn’t helpful when it came to raising capital, I can assure you. Having nothing but a high school education and a well-written business plan did little to calm the nerves of my family’s bank.
I’m sure that my parents would have lent me the $13,000 I needed to start my little shop, but I was committed to doing it myself. Although I was very nervous about getting into debt, a wise man reminded me that $13,000 is a small car payment for most people, and for that amount of risk, you get to try and make a dream come true that could impact the rest of your life.
He was right. The thought of not doing it, and spending the rest of my life wondering ‘what if,’ was riskier than borrowing the money.
I huddled together a few credit cards and a small bank loan, sold my rusty Ford and rented a small spot in the centre of town. I was officially in business.
Taking the city bus to your own business and scheduling appointments around when you can borrow your parent’s car wasn’t the glorious start to entrepreneurship I had imagined, but it was a start. In my first year of business, I regularly booked 95 hour work weeks, seldom went out with friends and paid myself only $781 for the entire first year.
Every dollar went back into the business as I needed a strong foundation to build upon. Over time, things started to improve. I eventually leased a new car, bought a house, and got my hours down to 50 to 60 hours per week. Getting to this point took years, and to be honest, I don’t know how I would’ve done it if it weren’t for the advantages of my youth.
You see, I started with the burden of the two most common reasons for business failure: lack of experience and lack of capital. While I suffered from both, I overcame them with blood, sweat and tears – and time.
I was able to risk all that I had because I didn’t have anything. That gets tougher to do later in life. Now I have a marriage, a mortgage and three kids. If I were to risk it all now, I’d have a lot to lose. I also don’t have the ability to work 95 hours a week or accept $781 as an annual salary. Starting a business later in life requires better planning and more support systems. Sure it’s possible, but I definitely benefited the flexibility that came with starting a business in my youth.
The great thing about starting a small business in my 20s was that I was able to make mistakes on a small scale and learn from them. The more experience I gained, the more the business grew. I was using my youth to my advantage and never really saw it as a disadvantage.
Today I see a lot more support systems for young entrepreneurs and I am pleased to see it become a hot topic and a celebrated achievement.
In spite of these advancements, the core risks and worries for young entrepreneurs have not changed. They worry about their own lack of experience and lack of ability to raise capital. They worry about taking on such responsibility and risk at a young age.
My advice is always the same: Imagine yourself not pursuing your passion; decades from now, will you be looking back on today’s opportunity and wondering ‘what if?’
Chris Griffiths is the Toronto-based director of fine tune consulting, a boutique management consulting practice. Over the past 20 years, he has started or acquired and exited seven businesses.