Let's Put on a Show: Gen Z and the Start-Up Frenzy

Yup...young people have been “putting on shows” and innovating for decades.

In fact, Edison invented the light bulb at 22. We all know about Facebook. Here are more young inventors throughout history.

Last night I had the pleasure of attending Inno U, a pitch night, sponsored by MinneInno and the brand-new and quite amazing WeWork. I think Deloitte was somehow involved too because their logo was super-large on the opening slide, but the crowd was definitely more focused on start-ups than big business. The people who pitched were mostly still in college and almost all male. (The organizers said three women dropped out at the last minute...not sure why.) I was, without a doubt, one of the oldest people in the room. I’ve run my own business for 15 years and have worked with hundreds of start-ups during that time.

We are clearly living in the era of the founder. Gen Z aspires to run their own businesses and Boomers are choosing entrepreneurial paths after aging-out of the corporate world or simply having enough of it.

Anyone can put on a show. Who can put on a GREAT show that attracts theater-goers year after year...tours the world...and maybe is ultimately made into a box office film hit?

I was really impressed by three of the founders/teams I met:

  • Quick Care, founded by three students at Macalester College. A helicopter parents’ dream! Mom or dad can easily order a “care package” for a student trapped in the dorm, frat or sorority house with a cold, fever, or other ailment. They’ve added a whole new dimension to the concept of the college gift package.
  • Kimchili Eatery, which was also a brainchild of Macalester College students. Having just returned from New York (where I lived most of my life), I was ruminating about the lack of great healthy ethnic options in Minneapolis. And then poof — the Kimchili team stood up to pitch. They “won” the event, based on the votes of the audience members. No prize money, but public accolades.
  • Under Recruited Preps, a product of Minnesota State University Mankato. This network connects student-athletes to college coaches and teaches them about the athletic recruiting process. They’ve already succeeded in connecting players in under-served communities to schools and scholarships.

And I’d also like to give a shout-out to Amanda Carlson of Rookiework. Not only does she have a great business concept, she a dynamo and expert badge-reader. (She saw I was a writer and immediately told me her story.)

What impressed me about these three pitches is that the founders identified a clear need in the market, did their research, and were really on top of their numbers. With a little more coaching and a little more experience they probably could have all held their own on Shark Tank.

The media extols the virtues of start-ups (especially those founded by young people and women), but we have to be careful not to over-glamorize the life of the entrepreneur. Building a SUSTAINABLE business means you need to respect some simple and timeless principles. Here’s the reality, boys & girls:

  • Starting and scaling a business is REALLY hard work. I think some of the founders were starting to realize that. I’m impressed that they’ve been launching businesses while still completing their educations.
  • Help and funding can come from anywhere. You don’t have to do everything someone tells you to do, but be sure to find great mentors and advisers and listen to what they have to say.
  • Starting-up is just the first step. Scaling, sustaining, and continuously innovating is the real challenge. Even that original light bulb doesn’t look the same way today. Facebook hasn’t hit its 20th birthday and is bound to encounter competition, bumps in their financial road, and more media crises. When you hit an obstacle, seek out people who have experience and perspective.
  • In-person and social media connecting is invaluable as you scale a business. Practice speaking to strangers. Yeah...business cards are sort of retro but they are helpful if someone wants to connect with you after an event. (I use Moo Cards, which has interesting and affordable options...not your momma’s business card).
  • Learning to present (whether you’re asking for money or presenting to a board) is a critical skill. Compelling storytelling in business involves engaging your audience and presenting FACTS, STATS, and REAL LIFE TESTIMONIALS that build credibility and supporters. Use your digital superpowers to create a Prezi or other visual backdrop that makes your story come alive. (But don’t forget those numbers — a great chart about market size or where your competitors have missed the mark is always a WOW!)

Wishing all of last night’s pitchers lots of success — academically and in the entrepreneurial world! And I hope to be reading about some of you in Crunchbase or Venture Beat in a few years!

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