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Going for it: Young entrepreneurs have little to lose

Nick d'Aloisio displays his mobile application Summly, as he poses for photographs after being interviewed by the Associated Press in London, Tuesday, March 26, 2013. One of Britain's youngest Internet entrepreneurs hit the jackpot after selling his top selling mobile application Summly to search giant Yahoo. Seventeen year old Nick d'Aloisio, who dreamed up the idea for the content shortening program when he was studying for his exams, said he was surprised by the deal. As with its other recent acquisitions, Yahoo didn't disclose how much it is paying for Summly, although British newspapers suggested the deal's value at several million dollars.

A little humility in the young is always appreciated, right?

So go apply for a job, and once you’re in, listen a lot and talk very little. Learn the ropes.

With experience and the wisdom that comes with it, maybe you can strike out on your own someday.

Forget that.

Tyler Beckett, Katie Yeager and Pete Mesh — all in their 20s —wanted to launch themselves and their new ventures now, not later. They have their reasons, but the shared and biggest one is this:

“Nothing to lose.”

No spouses, no kids, no personal stuff they really need to acquire, no futures beyond their own to consider — nobody depending on them not to fail.

They also have no intention of going down, of course. But even more, they have no intention of taking loved ones with them.

“I could risk everything and lose nothing,” said Beckett, who launched Hugo Tea Co. in Kansas City last December. “Why would I not do it?”

“It’s just my personal situation I’m risking,” said Yeager, head of a startup real estate company in Overland Park, Kan., called Your Future Address. “I can pick myself up.”

“I can take the chance,” said Mesh, who has revived a venerable Kansas City deli. “It gives me an edge.”

They have other things in common, particularly passion and high energy.

And a certain ghost of a fear: If they don’t light their entrepreneurial fire now — before the advent of family and regular paychecks — maybe they never would.

The three inadvertently have become part of the ongoing discussion in the entrepreneurial world about which path is best. Do it now or do it later?

Turns out early-onset entrepreneurship still isn’t the norm. While some famously successful ventures were begun by the young — Facebook, Google, Apple — the average age of startup leaders is actually close to 40.

For starters, Tyler Beckett, 26, never thought of himself as a company kind of guy. That is, getting good at a specific task and moving up the ranks.

He got his MBA from the University of Missouri after an undergraduate degree in “interdisciplinary studies,” which he acknowledges sounds a little unfocused.

“I wanted to take the courses I wanted to take,” he said. “And I never wanted to be a robot in the corporate world — not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

Well, maybe a little. But if not that world, what?

Beckett doesn’t believe there’s one “soulmate of a job” for every person, but he does believe in finding and following one’s interest. His happens to be tea.

That goes way back to his growing-up years in Cameron, Mo. His mother served lots of iced tea. He never did get hooked on coffee. At all.

“I’m a tea drinker in a coffee culture,” he admitted.

The entrepreneur thing started early, too. When he was in second grade in the mid-1990s, smack in the middle of the dinosaur unit, his grandparents bought a computer, color printer and Microsoft Encarta, a digital encyclopedia.

“I was amazed by this,” he said. “You could look up anything.”

Beckett didn’t care that much about dinosaurs, but he noticed everybody else did. They wore dinosaur backpacks. So he went to his grandparents’ and made dinosaur printouts, bundled them into picture packets and sold them at recess.

“This went on for a few days,” he says. “But it got shut down. Apparently selling things to other kids was not OK.”

With tea, he cares. He believes tea should be people’s drink of choice rather than coffee or energy drinks. Tea is healthy and more efficient to produce, about half the cost of a cup of coffee.

But he knows what he’s up against.

Tea continues to have a branding problem, he said. If tea is overly associated with folks who do yoga and prefer wheatgrass shakes — not that there’s anything wrong with those things — then lots of other people won’t think tea is for them.

Beckett wants his Hugo Tea Co. to succeed financially, but he also wants to create a tea culture.

“The more tea people drink in lieu of everything else, everybody wins,” he said.

Beckett became an expert about tea and the tea trade all over the world, contacting and hiring brokers and agents to import what he considers the best.

At his warehouse, which he shares with another company, Beckett blends, flavors and packs tea for area coffee shops, food service vendors and some 50 supermarkets.

He hires contractors for assistance as needed but has no permanent employees. On weekends you might see him at a nearby grocery store offering samples.

Meanwhile, he lives frugally, no cable TV or Internet, and he plows any freed-up money back into the company.

So far, so good. But one of the most important things he can say about the launch last December is that he did it.

“I had goals and plans, sure, but I had to figure things out as I went,” he said. “You really just have to get going.”

Brock Blake, CEO of the business loan company Lendio and a contributing writer to Forbes, is an unbridled advocate for folks like Beckett, 20-somethings who just want to get going.

Blake acknowledges a bias: He began his entrepreneurial career at age 24, which led to his part in the launch of the Utah-based Lendio when he was 29.

He loves the 20s risk profile — little to lose and everything to gain. He loves that 20-somethings are willing to get by on ramen noodles and macaroni and cheese. He loves their fresh minds.

“As you get into your career, people teach you that here’s the box, here are the parameters, this is how you should do it, and you start believing it,” Blake said.

“But young people can be more innovative because all you think about is the best way to solve a problem.”

That doesn’t put them in a vacuum, he said. They learn by doing, but they also seek out mentors and tap into community resources.

Thom Ruhe, vice president of entrepreneurship at the Kauffman Foundation, also enjoys the story of the young entrepreneur. That was Ruhe back at age 24, a few months before getting married, when he told his fiancee he hated his corporate job and was quitting for a new venture.

Now he’s married with three kids and has experienced several startups — which is to say a later-in-life scenario works, too. He acknowledges the “gut check” was pretty severe in his last company when he and his partners guaranteed a multimillion-dollar line of credit, his family’s assets ultimately on the line.

The numbers show that the largest amount of entrepreneurship activity is within an age group that averages 39 years old, Ruhe said. No doubt many are experienced people better able to get access to capital.

But the low-risk argument is a good one for younger people, he said. His metaphor for all of this: Ask someone to walk a 100-foot-long tightrope that’s 1 foot off the ground. Not so scary. As you get older, the rope can get higher and higher.

Ruhe believes that young people no longer have to hang around in a community for 15 to 20 years to tap into it. Kauffman’s “1 Million Cups” program, in which startup leaders present their companies to a group of mentors, advisers and other entrepreneurs, is proving that.

“I really believe that community is an emerging form of currency,” he said.

Don’t get mad at Katie Yeager for this story. It’s about her first performance evaluation at her first job out of college, at Raytheon Co. in Massachusetts.

Rave reviews all around. Stellar. The outcome was that she was awarded a 4 percent raise. Yeager was completely underwhelmed. Four percent raises weren’t going to get her where she wanted to be.

“That might make me sound ungrateful,” she said.

The job, the company, the colleagues — all great. But she wanted more of a link between working hard and smart and her paycheck. The lack of control bothered her.

Yeager had gotten a business degree with a concentration in entrepreneurship from the prestigious Babson College near Boston. Risk was an ongoing topic from professors who had more than dabbled in it.

And she had her own early experience with the notion. Her parents taught her how to count by playing blackjack with her — you know, four plus seven plus an ace equals 22, or 12. That early card-playing, she says, may or may not have set the stage for a bit of a poker habit in college, just to help with expenses.

“Let’s say this just opens your mind to the idea of calculated risk,” she said.

Sometimes one thing does lead to another.

Yeager decided to leave Raytheon and move back to Kansas City in 2009. Her experience in Massachusetts included flipping a condo, so she thought buying-renovating-selling might be an enterprise for her.

Her first Kansas City flip was a bit rocky, but it led her to a real estate license and experience inside an agency.

As an agent, she contacted “for sale by owner” advertisers on Craigslist, trying out a low flat fee for her services rather than a typical fee based on a percentage of the sales price.

The rest is recent history. Based on her success with flat fees, at age 26 (she’s 28 today) Yeager launched Your Future Address. She now has two other agents working with her.

Last year, the company closed 65 transactions with $14.7 million in sales. So far this year, it has 79 closed or pending transactions, $17 million. She says she’s saving clients lots of money with the flat fees, and if another agent is involved in the transaction, they aren’t shorted on their usual fee.

Hard work? Yeager’s all-night perseverance has earned her the nickname “vampire.”

There’s a reason for that enormous tub of iced coffee in front of her.

“Basically, if I’m awake, I’m at work,” she said.

If you’re imagining 3 a.m. emails flying out of her Leawood, Kan., home while she’s in her pajamas, that’s correct. There’s also an office for client meetings — receptionist and coffee maker shared with several companies —in Overland Park.

Her other agents are a bit like her, she said. They sort of have to be.

“I don’t want a complacent energy in the company,” she said. “I want hungry, hard-working and productive. I think it’s infectious.”

Friends and colleagues laughed when she thought about getting a puppy. Puppies require attention and time, they told her.

“Then I thought about a fish,” Yeager said. “I decided that wouldn’t be great either.”

It has been hard to pin down Pete Mesh until now. At 28, he’s on his third launch. But this one is personal.

Mesh grew up in Kansas City’s Columbus Park neighborhood, aka the north end.

His family’s house and his grandmother’s across the street were just two blocks from LaSala’s Deli on Fifth Street.

Their families, like many in the neighborhood, shared an Italian heritage. Mesh had been boyhood friends with one of the LaSala grandsons.

Mesh went to grade school and middle school in the area, then moved away and graduated from high school in 2003. He came right back the next year. He took a union job as a heavy equipment operator.

Never a follower, Mesh soon enough busted out with his own asphalt business. He did well for a couple of years, but when someone offered to buy him out, equipment and all, he was ready to move on.

He got into the auto transport business driving a truck, a venture he called solid for making money. But he was always, always on the road, moving vehicles from city to city.

Another good buyout offer, and he took the cash.

“What discouraged me was being away all the time,” said Mesh, who had bought his grandmother’s house a few years ago after she passed away.

As it happened, the LaSala family, whose name has been on the deli’s brick building since the 1920s, decided to close. That would be a big blank space in the neighborhood in terms of Italian food and generous sandwiches.

“If I couldn’t go to LaSala’s and get a ‘Rich Boy’ (eight layers of meats and cheeses), I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Mesh said.

So he bought the place.

And in nine months, he’s got it rocking again. He remodeled inside to open up the dining room. He tossed out the microwaves and added fresh ingredients.

With culinary help, he created some new menu items, including a hot Italian beef sandwich called “The Don Bosco” in honor of the community center in the Italian community.

Last week, he added a bar to serve beer and alcohol.

And Mesh picked a new name: the North End. The vibe continues to change in the area, more young people mixing with the old-timers, and he likes it.

“If I have anything to do with it, and if I can just have enough time to get this thing rolling, I can help put the neighborhood back on the map,” he said. “I like to be in control of my own destiny.”


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