Youth on their side: pros and cons of being a young tech entrepreneur

Jenny Brookfield, October 25, 2017 6 min read

This article was originally posted on the Tech North website.

Young tech entrepreneurs seem to have the whole world in their hands. They’re working with technology they have grown up using so much that it’s second nature. Not only that, but they’re rich in the time needed to devote to their businesses. It’s likely that few will have the responsibilities of the generation above them, meaning they can throw themselves wholeheartedly into their venture.

But is it really that simple? Though the entrepreneurs I spoke to had age on their side, most believe the experience of age can bring value to their organisations.

The 22-year-old serial founder

“We have a couple of people who are really supportive and give their time mentoring and advising us regularly, but as our business grows we’ll be looking for a more formal adviser who has experience,” says Dylan McKee, who founded Newcastle-based app developer Nebula Labs with fellow 22-year-old Nic Flynn. “We have the knowledge in what we do but we don’t know everything and we don’t have the business experience someone older would have.”

Dylan McKee

Dylan McKee

A previous business failure for computer science graduate McKee – Spreetree, a loyalty scheme app for businesses – has proven a valuable lesson for his current organisation. He ended up selling the business he had set up while at university. “The app was good and the technology was good, but the commercial side didn’t work,” he says.

Yet he had already proven his appetite for business from a young age. At 13, he developed his first app, MyAltitude, which achieved more than 1 million downloads worldwide, and he is an alumnus of the Ignite accelerator programme.

“Running a business has been a bit of trial and error, using what I’ve learnt from working in startups,” he says. “Sometimes when I’ve met with banks it can feel quite intimidating because I’m young, but once you get talking everyone’s been friendly.

“I think clients, especially, enjoy that I’ve grown up with technology and a lot will run ideas by us because we’re millennials, which is a huge advantage.”

Sometimes it feels like an uphill battle

Leeds-based Sam Ducker, 24, agrees being a young entrepreneur has its advantages, but says he has still met some negativity – although it doesn’t last long. He launched digital agency Lucky Duck this year after working on a freelance basis since he was 16.

Sam Ducker

Sam Ducker

“Sometimes it feels like an uphill battle when you sit in front of a CEO who’s 55,” he says. “You can get talked down to a little bit, as if they’ve been here and done it all before and you haven’t. You have to get that message across that you’re there to do a job and you need to be on a level playing field.”

Yet this doesn’t last. “After five or ten minutes, the dynamic changes because they realise I’m always going to be an expert in my field compared to the person I’m talking to,” Ducker says, adding that there can also be some negativity from friends and family. “At first, they don’t always take what you’re doing seriously. They think it’s a hobby, which wouldn’t be the case if I was a bit older.”

To differentiate itself, Lucky Duck’s six-strong team currently works with value-added resellers who sell HP, Dell and Huawai products as well as bars and restaurants, and Ducker says his goal is to grow his workforce to develop expertise in different areas. He anticipates revenue of £500,000 by year four and has been taking all the advice he can.

“I’ve spoken to people who’ve been there and done it before but I’d love to take on a mentor,” Ducker says. “I’ve a few people in mind from companies I really respect, but it has to be someone I get on with and who is right for the business.”

No gimmick

Mason Rowbottom, 24, came up with the idea for his business, CAD PAD, while a student at University of Huddersfield and is currently working a separate job to fund his enterprise. The business connects individuals or companies who want an idea turned into a 3D design – which could then be printed – with the designers able to carry out the task.

Mason Rowbottom

Mason Rowbottom

They upload their request onto the CAD PAD website and 3D model designers can pitch for the work. Students are his current customer base but the mechanical engineering graduate says there is the potential for businesses without a budget for their own 3D designers.

As part of a team at university, Rowbottom set up a 3D printing society that won awards for its work including 3D printing a set of prosthetic hands for a 10-year-old. Yet, he says the infancy of 3D printing can make it difficult as a young entrepreneur.

“When I speak to people, perhaps because the older generation may not know much about 3D printing, some look at it as a gimmick,” he says. “I’m also anticipating comments about my age and experience as the business develops, but I’m putting everything into this.

“I do eight to ten hours at work every day and then come home and work on the business until midnight or 1am, plus at weekends.”

The site went live in September and, all being well, Rowbottom predicts he will be able to give up his other job next year when he will aim to roll the business out to every university. His own university has offered invaluable advice in running a business and he suggests other graduates gather all the information they can while still in education.

No-one has asked our age

Manchester-based Steve Pearce, 25, has had only a positive reaction to his age since setting up ticketing price comparison website TickX with friend Sam Coley, 24. Launched at the end of 2014, the business received financial backing from Ministry of Sound. The duo (pictured top) appeared on Dragons’ Den in early 2017 and turned down offers from three of the dragons.

“From our experience, we’ve been quite impressed that no one has ever asked our age,” Pearce says. “What’s been really important is the need to prove that we are an incredible management team and have the relevant skill set to build a business. We’ve consistently proved during our fundraising that we’re the right people for the job.

“In some ways, our age has worked in our favour because people are impressed at what we’ve achieved at such a young age.”

Coley set up his first business, an auction site, aged 14 after teaching himself to programme. Pearce studied economics at the University of Manchester and spotted a gap in the market for the business.

As a 14-strong team with an average age of 24, the pair have tried to surround themselves with experience, taking on a non-executive director who is a former European vice president at Ticketmaster and senior vice president at Live Nation.

“As a young team we have the skill set to build a business but we’re also surrounding ourselves with the best in the game and that works in our favour,” Pearce says. “We’re keen to learn and hungry to make sure the business is a success. We have a global vision to become the Skyscanner for events and I think it’s been such a success so far because we’re passionate about what we do. We work evenings and weekends but it never feels like work.”

A sacrifice, but worth it

While Pearce and Coley, along with many other young entrepreneurs, often have the time to devote to their enterprises, that could inevitably lead to their social life taking a hit.

CAD PAD’s Rowbottom agrees. “I do think that I don’t get the same chance to socialise like people my age do but I do however feel it is a sacrifice worth taking,” he says. “By doing this now, I’m gaining the opportunity to be more free to do what I want later in life because I’m my own boss. At the end of the day it feels like true freedom when I am working on my own thing to achieve my own goals.”

McKee, from Nebula Labs, says he had to accept not having as much time to socialise, yet running a business does offer other chances to meet new people.

“I really enjoy working on my business so I feel that it’s a price worth paying,” he says. “I go to a lot of social networking events, like the Digital Showcase event that’s held every month at Campus North in Newcastle, too, so I’ve made new friends through starting a business so young. It’s really given me an opportunity to expand not only my professional but also my social circles.”

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