Being a successful young entrepreneur today requires a different set of personality traits than it did a hundred years ago.
So why are Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie still held up as models for young entrepreneurs to emulate?
Today, I’ll be looking at the stories of three very different young entrepreneurs.
Each faces a different set of challenges in their respective industries. One or two you might not even consider “real” entrepreneurs. They aren’t the type to get featured in TechCrunch or gets millions of dollars in venture capital money, for instance.
But each is finding success, doing something new, or using their skills to create freedom and independence.
- Tim Hwang, a disruptive entrepreneur who’s looking to change how law firms work
- Alex Mangini, a lifestyle entrepreneur who skipped college and used his web design skills to buy freedom instead
- Jake Johnson, a creative entrepreneur who stars on a Fox comedy while also writing for TV
By looking at their stories, I’ve discovered 7 must-have traits that I believe every successful young entrepreneur needs today.
In a rapidly changing world, being agile is all about your responsiveness to change. Taking control of your career and not being at the mercy of a corporation is the ultimate hedge against a changing marketplace.
Here’s what the best young entrepreneurs do:
#1: They Challenge the Status Quo
Hwang’s goal with the project is to create programming tools to automate the dreary aspects of corporate law: incorporating subsidiaries, transferring assets, filing complaints, and so on.
To the surprise of no one, the legal community hasn’t embraced this status quo challenging model:
I meet a number of attorneys who cling to the idea that being a human in the system I provide some undefinable, abstract value. Some of these traditional attorneys have reacted with skepticism or outright hatred.
Law students have also been less receptive, because the idea of Robot Robot & Hwang is adverse to their interests. They need to do mundane, simple tasks early in their careers, and this would take away that.
Young entrepreneurs are living in a world of unprecedented change. Successful young entrepreneurs have to challenge the status quo, because that’s where the opportunities are.
Along the way, entrenched powers like big law firms (and big law schools that supply them) will fight ideas like Robot Robot & Hwang, even if they provide better alternatives for everyone.
#2: They are Disruptive
Tim Hwang isn’t oblivious to the disruptive potential of automating the bread-and-butter tasks of lawyers:
One thing that got me intrigued about law was that industry-wide it has the same kind of structure as older industries that have been disrupted by technology: a small class of people that’s based on control of information, protected by regulations.
Law hasn’t had its Napster moment yet, though everyone recognizes it’s an incredibly inefficient structure …
A successful young entrepreneur is disruptive in any number of ways.
- By asking why we do things certain ways, a young entrepreneur can find a socially conscious component to selling everyday items like shoes (TOMS) and eyeglasses (Warby Parker).
- By challenging what we do, a company like Zipcar can flip the model of car ownership on its head.
- And by changing how we do things, like dispensing legal advice, a project like Robot Robot & Hwang has the potential to disrupt an entire industry.
#3: They are Passionate
Fourteen-year-old Alex Mangini, like many of us, became addicted to video games. But unlike many of us, Alex went out and did something about it. Alex founded his own community on the web for video games.
Along the way, he learned a ton about website design until he felt competent enough to market and sell his own WordPress themes. Three years later, Alex was making $6000 to $8000 a month between the themes he was selling and his own freelance design company.
Because he was embedded in the gaming community and had authentic passion and authority in this niche, Alex could turn his passion into a project and iterate rapidly until he developed a full-fledged business from his hobby.
One major advantage successful young entrepreneurs have today is that we can transform our hobbies and passions into entrepreneurial ideas easier than ever by following the Personal Hedgehog concept and using web tools like WordPress that already exist.
#4: They are Unconventional
While his fellow seniors in high school were busily filling out college applications, set on their conventional life plans that would inevitably lead to 9 to 5 corporate drudgery, Alex Mangini decided to forego college and continue with his business ambitions.
By mid-2012, he was clearing $10,000 a month, a figure the vast majority of his friends who went to college will never see. All while doing something he is passionate about.
The courage to pursue the unconventional path is a crucial young entrepreneur trait. Many of the structures that defined success in the 20th century, like homeownership and climbing the corporate ladder, have been torn down.
Too many of us are still applying a 20th century framework to understand a 21st century landscape. Young entrepreneurs challenge what is possible, either by skipping college like Peter Thiel’s fellows, or voluntarily becoming contract employees to maintain flexibility and independence.
#5: They are Resilient
You might recognize Jake Johnson as the not-quite romantic interest opposite Zooey Deschanel in Fox’s hit comedy series New Girl. A writer-turned-actor who has another pilot for Fox in the works, you might think the young creative entrepreneur just turns out hits.
You’d be wrong:
I think I’ve missed so many fucking times that to get hurt every time I miss it’s just not realistic. It’s too exhausting.
Because I’m on a nice streak right now people will talk about the successes that I’m having, but even now if people saw the amount of rejection and the amount of fails I’ve had on a weekly basis professionally…if I was a batter I’m not hitting a thousand.
This business is like baseball, if you hit three out of ten you’re a great hitter.
It’s no secret that it’s tough out there in the marketplace right now, and it will remain that way for some time. The housing crash in 2008 is still being dealt with more than four years later.
But a deep, structural transformation in the economy is also happening: the bigger is better model is dying, the Rise of the Rest of the world will introduce uncertainty, and automation and outsourcing are threatening formerly safe professions.
Nowhere is this truer than in the creative economy, where tastes and fortunes change every quarter. Jake Johnson’s quote reminds us that the most important trait of a successful young entrepreneur is be resilient.
Not every entrepreneurial idea will be the next Facebook or Yelp. The big secret today is that it doesn’t have to be. As long as you’re willing to rack up the small wins, you will find a way to succeed.
The lesson of the Ellsberg Paradox is that we have trouble seeing the upside in situations. Three out of ten sounds like a terrible rate of success, except when you realize you only need one success to set you up for the next phase of your life. And it’s easier than ever to fail fast, fail cheaply, and move on from your failures.
#6: They Hustle
Young entrepreneurs hustle. One advantage of youth is energy and stamina. A creative entrepreneur like Jake Johnson had to push these advantages to the max in a tough industry like Hollywood:
Every night I was on a different stage performing, during the day crashing commercial auditions to try to get in and writing whenever I wasn’t catering a wedding or working a day job.
So I would work an eight-hour shift, get off, go perform, come home and write, and be sleeping five or six hours like everybody else out here who’s struggling.
Now that he’s found traction, he doesn’t give up this routine of hustling. While he doesn’t have to crash commercial auditions anymore, he’s still written 15 screenplays and 15 to 20 different TV show pitches, all while acting on New Girl.
Hustling is the art of working hard at the right things. For a creator, that means creating.
#7: They Preserve Their Autonomy
Early on in his career, Jake Johnson had a play that he wrote produced by a New York theater.
He hated it.
The director took the project away from him, changed it in ways he didn’t like. From then on, he decided he would try to act in what he wrote, in order to keep creative control of the project.
It’s a strategy that works. More and more digital natives are using the incredible tools available to us to preserve more of their autonomy. Unlike the older people who accuse them of Peter Pan Syndrome, Millennials simply have better options these days than taking orders from bad bosses with unearned authority.
The twin revolutions in computing and telecommunications are making autonomy for creators, from creation to editing to publishing and distribution, more achievable than ever.
Autonomy is one of the core principles of living an agile lifestyle. Being in control of your own life decisions is the best preventative medicine to avoid a midlife crisis and an unfulfilled life.
There are many traits that a successful young entrepreneur should have: the ability to identify megatrends, the capacity to dream big, marketing skills, a bloodhound’s nose for opportunities, etc.
But what strikes me as critical in these three stories, Tim Hwang, Alex Mangini, and Jake Johnson, is that the seven personality traits I identified aren’t just important for entrepreneurship.
They are important for living agile right now in this crazy, baffling, and brilliant new century.
Even if you are salary slave toiling for a Fortune 500 dinosaur, the ability to challenge the status quo and be disruptive and unconventional will help you change your corporate culture and maybe save your company from disruptive innovation in the process.
Hustling and bouncing back from setbacks will always be treasured personality traits no matter the context.
And being passionate and keeping your autonomy are crucial to living a fulfilled, meaningful life.
What other traits do you think are crucial to the 21st century young entrepreneur?
Image by Philippe Put.