Why Business Rockstars Just Keep Getting Younger

We’ve all seen it lately, the rapid rise and success of the likes of Nick D’Aloisio, the 17 year old that sold his app, Summly to Yahoo for a reported £19 million. Or Fraser Doherty who founded Superjam at the ripe old age of 14.

With more and more examples like Nick and Fraser emerging, it raises some obvious questions. Do traditional routes to employment like University still play a credible part in success? Are they really a hot-bed of talent like Facebook or Microsoft? Or can they be a distraction, lulling some young people into a sense that traditional employment is the proven path to success? And why, for every example of a self-made teenage millionaire, are there 1 million examples of unemployed young people in the UK?

For me it feels like the landscape is changing. University tuition fees are rising and, through the introduction of the Start Up loans scheme, it seems that the Government is actively placing more focus and investment into helping young people explore opportunities around self-employment and business start-up. In my opinion, an 18 year old taking a Start Up Loan is not all that different from taking out a Student Loan, but with a different focus on where the money is going to be spent; largely creating immediate economic value.

If we take this one step further and look at how many entrepreneurs actually attended or even finished University, then as a percentage it’s probably surprisingly low. In 2008-09 the HLHE data suggested just 4.1% of university leavers classed themselves as self-employed. Today, university drop-outs like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg are held in no less regard than those like Alan Sugar or Richard Branson who never attended university, or Martha Lane-Fox who attended Oxford. I would argue, the Start Up Loans programme has a clear need, so much so that the Government has committed a further £117 million to the project until 2015.

Of course there are only so many entrepreneurial people who are going to take advantage of schemes such as Start Up Loans and become business owners. So for the young people who are keen to become more employable and for the graduates who want to get into the bigger companies, what support is there for them and what can they do better?

Having never been a University graduate, or even a college graduate, I cannot give a first hand account of what it is like seeking employment. But I can provide the view of what it’s like to be a business owner who constantly receives CV’s and internship requests from those seeking experience. The biggest things I find are that all CV’s I receive look the same. The same format, same tone and most frustratingly, the same clichéd opening line of “I’m a highly motivated individual…” My advice; stop looking and sounding like everyone else! If I want to hire a key person to add value to my business, I want to see that a bit of thought and originality has gone into their approach. That way I’ll see that they really want the job as opposed to my company being part of their scatter gun approach to getting as many generic applications out, with the same copy and paste cover letter and CV.

I‘d also urge graduates to consider more than the usual suspects; apprenticeships, work-experience programs and internships all play a vital role but do they really make you stand out? Start-ups and SMEs are often much more accessible and appreciative of the value that you can add to their organisation. And the bigger the impact you can make on your time there, the better it will look on your CV. Seriously, how much better is it to say “I contributed to the marketing plan of a business which has now resulted in a total rebrand of the organization”, compared to “I sat in a few client meetings and watched the new marketing strategy process take shape”.

My advice here for any young job seeker is to tailor the approach to the specific organisational culture and, most importantly, be different to your competition. I had a job available once and received countless CV’s. But eventually I took on the guy who called me every single day prior to his interview to ask me more about the role and the organisation. On his interview day he came with a fully prepared business proposition with recommendations for ways to improve the business. Safe to say that he got the job.

Maybe I’m biased, but I think even if you don’t have aspirations to be an entrepreneur, just getting involved in a start-up gives you amazing experience and still makes you more employable. Plus the advantages of exploring start-ups when you’re young are clear. You probably have no mortgage, no children, no huge financial commitments and this makes you practically bulletproof to failure. I still say it now, if it all went wrong for me, I can move back in with my Mom and Dad and start again. Failure is the most important process that any successful individual, not just entrepreneur, will undertake at some point or another. It’s what you learn from it that counts and how you apply that to your future successes.

So, going back to the narrative, does University or any other ‘traditional’ route to employment play a part in success anymore? Sure it can, but only if you make your degree work for you as opposed to expecting that little bit of paper to open the doors to your career. The difference between 2013 and 1993 is that going to a posh school and on to university doesn’t mean you can expect success. Don’t view success as a right. View it as an objective which you have to work for, which can be achieved via numerous routes, and which can come in many forms.