It’s a familiar story: yet another San Francisco-based entrepreneur ends up creating a unicorn startup before the age of 35. What is not so familiar is that this entrepreneur’s main challenge was not being allowed to hire anyone, nor being permitted to ask for a loan. Why? Because he was a teenager.
When he was 16, Javier Agüera (now 24) co-invented the Geeksphone, which claimed to be the first Android-powered handset that allows the user to modify operating system components without having to root the device first. At the age of 19 he already had three startups behind him and was considered by MIT Technology Review one of the Innovators Under 35 in Spain. However, he faced challenges because of his youth that grown-up Entrepreneurs cannot imagine. If it’s hard for adults to create a successful company, imagine trying to do so at the age of 16.
But this is everyday life for a growing number of teenage entrepreneurs (teenpreneurs) like Javier Agüera.
According to the influential GEM (Global Entrepreneurship Monitor), although the average age of an entrepreneur is between 25 to 45 years old, people are starting businesses at younger and younger ages. Why are younger people deciding to go into business, often before they have acquired work experience, and in some cases without attending university? What are the challenges they face, and what are the skills they need to create a successful startup? Are they the same as those confronting their elders? Does age matter, and if so, what can we in business education do to help the next generation of entrepreneurs?
To better understand this growing phenomenon, we carried out a qualitative research study to identify and analyze the skill sets of teenpreneurs. To do this, we both interviewed teenpreneurs and also we used secondary data from a range of media such as TED talks, interviews in media, newspaper articles, youtube channels, and social media channels (mostly LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook). We also interviewed parents, partners and coworkers of young entrepreneurs. As a result, we have developed an ongoing database of 84 entrepreneurs. The youngest was eight years old, and thus strictly speaking a pre-teenpreneur, while the oldest was a world-weary 19-year-old.
First, we identified several important barriers that teenpreneurs face in their entrepreneurship journey. The first being financing: in most of the countries we looked at, teenpreneurs cannot legally borrow money or even register a company. Or as Erik Finman, founder of the online education project Botangle, explained to CBS News: “Fifteen-year-olds are not allowed to hire employees.” They’re also not allowed to borrow money or sign commercial contracts. Furthermore, under-18s are constrained by educational systems that discourage them from becoming entrepreneurs: in most countries, education is compulsory till the age of 16 years, which limits the time children can devote to their projects… and to their customers, partners, investors, or stakeholders.
Despite the difficulties they face, what struck us about these teenpreneurs was that they are smart, have a sense of humor and an appetite for risk, and most importantly, have developed capabilities to meet the challenges outlined above. They show strong self-direction, independence, and willingness to take responsibility for their own learning. For example, when Javier Agüera was 14, he discovered a website in English where he could purchase accessories for smartphones; he offered to translate it into Spanish and thus widen the website’s market, at the same time as teaching himself web programing and the logistics of mobile devices.
We also found a few things that set these young entrepreneurs apart.
Most of the teenpreneurs we spoke to are competing in technology and innovation-based industries, where key knowledge can be learned in a short time. Some of these industries have only been in existence a few years (crypto currencies, for example). This suggests that while a year’s experience in a sector may not seem like much, in relative terms it can be considerable when combined with teenpreneurs’ characteristic proactive approach to learning. It should also be remembered that we are talking about the a generation with easy access to internet technology from their early years. Exposed to smartphones and social media and educated in the use of computers, for them using technology is part of everyday life.
Like older entrepreneurs, they also recognize the importance of networks – but teenpreneurs’s neworks are a little bit different. Lacking access to the adult world of entrepreneurs, teenpreneurs create their own networks: Israeli Nir Kouris created eCamp to promote networking and to exchange ideas and knowledge among young people at home and abroad, while founding “Innovation Israel”. Pangea in Spain is a project led by Pablo González, a teenpreneur focused on creating a network of teenpreneurs who help each other and source external advice and references. Javier Agüera joined the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers, where he found other youngsters similar to him. These kinds of initiatives can also reassure parents anxious about their children’s entrepreneurial outlook, or provide needed support to young entrepreneurs whose parents are even more skeptical.
As a result, teenpreneurs are highly connected and help each other more than their older counterparts. Our experience is that it is easier to work with a teenpreneur than an older entrepreneur: they are eager to learn from people with industry experience, while traditional entrepreneurs are often more reluctant to let experienced people take a look at, or have a stake in, their projects.
Teenagers are also natural risk takers, a characteristic that often frustrates and befuddles parents. Our survey showed that teenagers are typically unafraid of risk, but less decisive, as criteria and goals are still not clearly set.
Compared to other teenagers, teenpreneurs seem possessed of greater critical faculties, are more focused and more able to manage risks and make decisions. Many studies show how managers and entrepreneurs have quite different risk propensity patterns, with entrepreneurs showing a greater propensity for risk-taking.
Another reason teenpreneurs may be more willing to take risks is that they still live with their parents, who essentially are providing an important safety net. Heading up a project that requires time to grow is clearly not the same as focusing on generating income for a young family. Perhaps as a result, teenpreneurs see opportunities everywhere, which largely explains why most of the industries they compete in are technological and highly innovative: where an older person might see unmanageable risk in an immature industry or a technology, younger people see a green field where they can grow a new project.
The teenpreneurs we studied are also more globally-minded than their elders. Having grown up in an internet connected world, they do not see geographic boundaries. Bastian Manintveld, CEO and founder of 2btube, a multi-channel network that manages hundreds of Youtubers, many of them also teenpreneurs, told us: “For the YouTube generation there are no boundaries or countries: if they like a [piece of] content they will consume wherever it comes from.” Most of the teenpreneurs we interviewed speak a second language and have spent long periods of time living in countries other than their own, where they integrated into day-to-day life. This involved working with people they barely knew, having new experiences, and having to solve problems with people who think differently, speak another language, grew up under a different culture, and who make decisions using completely different mindsets. This helps young entrepreneurs understand how relationships work, allowing them to be flexible, respectful and trusting of others, and able to work within ambiguity while pursuing clear goals. Our teenpreneurs showed cognitive complexity and cosmopolitanism.
Teenage entrepreneurs are neither born nor made, but a combination of both. As Javier Agüera told us when explaining the secret of his success: “It’s a little bit of luck and a huge amount of hard work,” something that any an entrepreneur of any age will corroborate.