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Overcoming barriers as a young entrepreneur
Q: I’m a 26-year-old woman, and I think potential customers won’t even let me offer my services to them because of my age or, perhaps, my accent. It’s daunting and demoralising.
Is it always this hard when you’re young? Any advice for me on how to break through to potential customers?
— Marta Redmill, UK
Thanks for getting in touch, Marta. Sorry to hear about the problems you’re facing. It never ceases to frustrate me when people are hesitant to take a chance on young entrepreneurs.
In my experience, young entrepreneurs are often the most dynamic and creative people in business, mainly because they haven’t had a chance to get stuck with bad habits or routines.
I was only 15 when I started my first venture, Student magazine, and everyone working with me was a teenager, too. We really believed in our idea, but older people doubted us. So in order to get the break that we needed, we had to fib a bit.
Admittedly, it was nerve-wracking to stand in a phone booth in my school yard and promise an advertiser that a celebrity was definitely on board for an interview, then ring the celebrity in question to say that we had enough advertisers to pay for our publishing. But it worked out in the end!
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend doing that now, but if people doubt your abilities, you have to be as confident as possible. There are degrees of “fake it ‘til you make it.”
I’ve worn many hats in my business life, and I’ve utilised different techniques to win over customers at the start.
At Student, I was the advertising manager, editor, publisher, finance manager, PR man and journalist—it all depended on who I was talking to. As you get your career up and running, you need to be versatile.
(Even today, when I’m asked if I can do something, I often say “yes” and then learn how to do it later.)
A common tactic that some startups employ is to set up several email addresses to imply that the company has many different departments.
They set up, for instance, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org and so on, even if only one or two people are running things. This gives the impression that your business is a bit larger and more established. It’s a bit cheeky, but sometimes you have to be bold, especially when you’re disheartened because people don’t believe in you.
Having just recently celebrated International Women’s Day across the Virgin Group—and reading all the inspirational stories that entails—it’s clear that now is the time for female entrepreneurs to take to the stage. Unfortunately, as a young woman, you’re still likely to encounter bias. My advice is to seek out the right mentors.
More experienced entrepreneurs can really help when you’re starting out — they can give you insight and support to help build your confidence. It’s also important to find your “tribe.” By that, I mean a community of entrepreneurs who might be in a similar position as you, and who will let you bounce ideas off of them and offer support. You can find your tribe by searching social media groups online, or through local networking and meet-up events.
Getting started with your career can be a lonely business, especially when it feels like the whole world is against you, but networking and finding other people in similar arenas, or at similar stages, can provide you with a real boost.
Ultimately, though, it’s necessary to develop a thick skin when you’re starting out. I’ve heard the word “no” countless times over my business journey, especially at the beginning. You need to keep pestering people (unless they tell you to stop, of course). Be creative, too. How can you best get their attention?
Nowadays, I’m known as Dr Yes, but I didn’t always hear “yes” in reply to my many business ideas. But a successful business ultimately starts with one “yes,” even if you have to hear “no” a thousand times before that. I learned that lesson in that phone booth I mentioned earlier, pushing coin after coin into the slot, knowing that if we just kept believing in our idea and ourselves that we’d hear that “yes” eventually. I was right, and I’m confident you will be, too, given enough dedication.
(Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. He maintains a blog at www.virgin.com/richard-branson/blog. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/richardbranson. To learn more about the Virgin Group: www.virgin.com.) (Questions from readers will be answered in future columns. Please send them to Richard.Branson@nytimes.com. Please include your name, country, email address and the name of the website or publication where you read the column.) What It Takes
If potential customers are hesitant to take a chance on you, keep these tips in mind.
• Be as confident as possible: There are times when you really do have to “fake it ‘til you make it.”
• Be versatile: When starting out, you’ll need to wear many hats and learn different skills.
• Seek mentors: Entrepreneurs who have been in your shoes will be a valuable source of support.
• Develop thick skin: You’re likely going to hear “no” many times. Believe in your idea and be persistent, and you will eventually get a “yes.”
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