More than a dozen budding executives from across Polk County, part of the Young Entrepreneurs Academy, recently got to sit in front of five people they aim to be someday: successful business owners.
The young entrepreneurs, at a CEO Roundtable sponsored by the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce, came ready to discuss products and services they had developed to launch their own startups. Over the last year, the teens had nurtured ideas, drafted business plans, conducted market research and were now preparing pitches to potential investors. Among their nascent products: an irrigation system, I.D. tag for beverages, drone services, adjustable school uniforms that “grow” and an app to help Boy Scouts.
What matters right now, they say, is to know thyself because they won't be pitching products - they'll be pitching themselves.
“Know your story,” says Grant Nieddu, a “serial school-quitter” who languished until he founded The Spark Project, his own “business-launching business,” and found the motivation to “triple hustle” unlike anything he'd done before.
Many startups fail because fledging founders forget their passion, their drive, is what intrigues investors and entices patrons as much, if not more, than any product or service, he says.
“Call it what it is — sales,” Nieddu says. “Study psychology, especially your own. You have to be a seller. You can tell when someone is trying to sell something they don't believe in. That is why story — your story — is so important.”
Right behind know yourself, say the panelists, is know your why.
“Why do you want to own your own business?” asks Kate Lake, owner of My Office & More, a shared workplace business that hosted the event. “Find out what makes you passionate. You have to study yourself.”
Chrissanne Long, CEO and co-owner of Maximize Digital Media and founder of Lakeland Business Leaders, says “Passion is going to convey itself.”
Long's why? “Knowing the person I see in the mirror is the person who will make a difference.”
Know thyself, the panel emphasizes, and other things will fall into place, such as product knowledge, market awareness, advertising/marketing, currying mentorship and knowing when to outsource for specialized services.
Gary Claville, retired president of Dixie-Southern Constructors Inc., says every opportunity to sell should have one goal: “Repeat business.” Potential customers and clients seek relationships with people they trust, he says.
Seek relationships, not sales, to “separate you from your competitors,” Claville adds, noting “your reputation and the reputation of your business” are inseparable and must be vigilantly safeguarded.
Some other key advice from the panelists includes:
• Assume responsibility. “You say what you do and do what you say,” Long says. “You are the face of your business. You are your best advertising.”
• Persistence pays: “Analyze how you buy things, then you can figure out how to sell things,” Lake says, noting studies indicate people hear about a business on average seven times before they think about patronizing it. “You have to spend a lot of time telling people about yourself.”
• Cultivate curiosity: “Know how and why things work,” Long says. “Why did a business go out of business? You need to geek out on everything that could affect your business.”
• Take chances: “Don't fear failure,” says Nieddu. “Failure is part of the process. Don't make a decision you can't undo.”
• Just do it: “Toughest thing in starting a business is starting a business,” Nieddu says. “There is no secret. Just start. Start engaging people across the board. Start making money now. Go start something now.”
The Young Entrepreneurs Academy, a national program founded at the University of Rochester in 2004, offers yearlong classes that teach middle and high school students how to start and run a businesses. The Lakeland Chamber of Commerce recently sponsored a CEO Roundtable to prepare the students for pitches they plan to present to potential investors April 4.