Busting the mythbusters: Young, ‘digital natives’ ready to take business world by storm
A look at the new group of freshman at the University of Utah’s Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute
SALT LAKE CITY — The fresh-faced photos are as much a part of the legends as the names of the companies they started.
Mark Zuckerberg sporting a Harvard hoodie in his dorm room. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak with their first computer prototype, housed in a wooden box. Bill Gates grinning next to a computer terminal at Seattle’s exclusive Lakeside School.
But it turns out the story arc of these youngster founders — all 20-somethings who would go on to earn icon status as they built their now-marquee brands of Facebook, Apple and Microsoft — have been far more the exception than the rule.
The Harvard Business Review splashed ice-cold water on the myth of young business prodigies in 2018 with a report that combed through troves of data to determine the average age of startup entrepreneurs for the highest performing U.S. businesses across all sectors was 45. And, even narrowing the focus to the favorite stomping ground of wunderkinds — computer software — the average founder still clocked in at a ripe old 40.
This 2-year-old data set, however, may be set to gather dust if a new group of freshman at the University of Utah’s Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute have their say.
The 30-odd students, many of whom are beginning their college careers having already started one or more businesses, are part of a cohort called Lassonde Founders that made its debut in the startup-focused education hub of the David Eccles School of Business in the fall 2020 term.
Lassonde Executive Director Troy D’Ambrosio said the idea was seeded by observations of a fast-evolving world of viable startups that, instead of being launched by wiley veterans with MBAs and network connections, were coming from teenagers with great ideas and fearless convictions.
“A few years back, Zions Bank helped us launch a high school segment for our long-running Utah entrepreneur challenge,” D’Ambrosio said. “What we’ve been seeing is just an astounding level of quality ideas coming from high school founders.”
That revelation melded with an idea already brewing that the sooner Lassonde students could get started on growing out fully conceived business ideas while in school, the more they could learn in the process.
“It’s a common cycle that students in the program maybe don’t get going on a startup concept until they’re juniors or seniors,” D’Ambrosio said. “When you start with a freshman that has a fully baked business concept, there are years of opportunities while in school for really positive collaborations and iterating concepts.”
But why is it that, all of a sudden, there are enough young founders around to not only easily fill a freshman cohort, but one in which applicants were competing for spots?
Taking a peek further up the pipeline is telling. Earlier this year, the high school section of the Utah Entrepreneur Challenge drew some 350 applications — from founders age 14-18 — for 20 spots in the final round of competition.
D’Ambrosio said some simple mechanics play a role in this rising tide, not the least of which is the cost of starting a new business is lower than it’s ever been and critical new-business challenges — like achieving market access — have become as simple, in some cases, as joining an established digital platform as a third-party seller.
But he also noted some other perhaps more significant factors are driving the newest crop of entrepreneurs.
“How this generation approaches the world is different, and very impressive,” D’Ambrosio said. “They’ve grown up as advanced digital natives. They’re technically very capable, optimistic, persistent.”
Who are these digital natives? Well, today’s college freshmen were mostly born after the dot-com crisis and about the time the “web 2.0” world was beginning to emerge with user-generated content and cloud-based platforms starting their reign as the engines of the digital realm. This is a generation that never used a cellphone without internet access, never heard the screech of a dial-up connection in progress, and has a worldview shaped as much by their lifelong connections to a global digital network as the neighborhoods they grew up in.
At 20, Lassonde Founder cohort member Andrew Wang has already been coding for a decade and generated enough revenue through his game development effort, Pandemic Studios (a name he chose years before the current public health crisis began), to buy himself a brand new Tesla Model 3 sedan.
“I started playing on a website that also had an app that helped kids design their own games,” Wang said. “I started developing games on the site when I was 10 years old and had a lot of fun. I found I had a passion for it.”
That early passion would lead Wang further down the road as a game coder, including finding kindred developers on the Roblox platform who he wanted to work with. Those collaborations evolved into an official studio effort, but it would be some time before the games he and his colleagues were working on found a following.
“I didn’t make any money ... as a developer for seven years,” Wang said. “Yeah, I could have gone to work for minimum wage at a McDonald’s when I was 16 but I chose instead to invest my time into learning how to develop games.”
The work did pay off and Pandemic Studios scored a hit with a game called Zombie Stories. Proceeds helped Wang purchase that new Tesla but he said the biggest win in the process was what he learned along the way. And, the highs and lows of his startup journey led to Wang’s interest in continuing to hone his entrepreneurial chops at Lassonde which, in spite of early successes, are just getting started.
“I have a lot of business ideas,” Wang said. “After reading about what they offered at Lassonde I thought, ‘this is too good to be true’. But now I’m here and finding out that it’s even better than advertised.”
Wang said he’s ready to take advantage of the instruction and expertise available through the institute and noted he sees his fellow students as a huge asset.
“It’s amazing to be a part of a group of go-getters who like to create opportunities, take chances and get a head start and do what they love,” Wang said. “That’s what inspires me the most. Everyone is doing what they love and when you do that, great things happen.”
Finding the things Stephanie Burnham loves within in the offerings of her startup, online apparel and lifestyle brand B3 Supply Co., isn’t all that hard.
One of the company’s T-shirt designs features a graphic that was adapted from a photo of the 18-year-old Burnham with her classic motorcycle, a theme she said has run through multiple generations of her family.
“The name says it all,” Burnham said. “B3 stands for three generations of my family. My grandpa raced motorcycles and Jeeps when he was young, and my dad is into all things motorsports, which got passed down to me.
“We all love fast cars and bikes.”
Burnham and her brother co-founded the company three years ago and share responsibilities according to their skill sets. Stephanie handles the marketing and design and her brother, 21-year-old Parker Burnham, handles the screen printing and production side of the business.
Burnham said her age has not been an impediment to growing B3, other than the challenge of finding the right balance between her school work and company responsibilities. She’s already found enough success with marketing the B3 line of products that it’s led to an expansion of the core business.
“Social media is just something I’ve grown up with,” Burnham said. “I understand how to make the most of it as part of online marketing efforts. Now, we’re offering a new service to help get brands just starting out off and running.”
Burnham said she’s looking to bolster her entrepreneurial skills at Lassonde, including learning more about how to protect her intellectual property through patent and copyright law, the ins-and-outs of accounting, best practices for managing inventory and more.
She also noted that as a member of the debut founders’ cohort who also lives in the studio facility, along with almost 400 other institute students, the constant exposure to other business- and startup-minded colleagues provides an ongoing energy boost for her work with B3 and the other endeavors she’s working on.
“It’s been really awesome being around so many other people my age who have started businesses,” Burnham said. “I’m learning so much from them and also able to help out in the areas I have experience with.
“There are people from all over the world here and we’re all working toward our own goals but doing it together.”