This post is part of our StartupDad Series, in which David Moody — father of a teen entrepreneur and founder of the StartupDad blog — explores the trials, tribulations, joys, and achievements that young entrepreneurs and their friends and family face.
As the parent of a teen entrepreneur, I’ve seen my son, Joshua, battle many aspects of entrepreneurship, but one of the earliest he went up against was the psychological pressure to “prove himself,” because of his age. Back in 2013, he and his co-founders participated in a startup accelerator in Northwest Arkansas called the ARK Challenge Business Accelerator. More than winning, Joshua was often focused on proving he deserved to be there. After all, he was the youngest by six years and the only high school student in the accelerator, which by the way, conflicted with his school year. In many ways, he stuck out from the crowd, a feeling that can be disorienting.
So, imagine your startup company is selected to participate in a business accelerator with the opportunity to receive $150,000 in investment funding. You are ecstatic, right? Doing back flips! Over the moon! You call everyone you know and share the excitement, right?
Well, maybe. If you are a barely 17-year-old high school student about to start your senior year, though, you likely feel like the dog that caught the car. You’ve chased this thing, but now that you caught it, what do you do with it? On top of that, few of your friends really understand what you do and what this means.
The Moment Discomfort Sets In
“I just wanted to prove I deserved to be there.” That was our son Joshua’s mantra after being selected for the ARK Challenge accelerator. Upon arriving at the accelerator, meeting the other startup teams, and sizing up the competition, his priority was more about gaining respect than winning. He figured he had no chance against the other ten teams. He was the youngest by six years. Most of the participants had at least one college degree, and several of the teams had companies that were already making money. In addition, Joshua’s co-founders were busy running their own app and web development company, so he participated in the accelerator activities by himself most of the time.
“The training, mentors, and access to resources were great, but I also realized how much I didn’t know,” Joshua told me. “My focus was on soaking it all in, getting smarter, and holding my own. I didn’t want to embarrass myself, and I didn’t want people involved in the selection process to feel like they had made a mistake by selecting me.”
Reasons We Doubt Ourselves
There are so many reasons we use to make ourselves believe we don’t belong in certain situations. There’s a term for this feeling: Impostor syndrome, when typically high-achieving individuals doubt their accomplishments in the face of adversity. It’s often associated with those in the minority and is typically race or gender related. For young entrepreneurs, though, I would argue that age is often a trigger for self-doubt, given outdated societal beliefs that young entrepreneurs aren’t as well-equipped as those senior to them.
Joshua had many data-points that theoretically supported his doubts. The ARK Accelerator had 92 entries that year from 15 countries around the world and 15 U.S. states. The application included written documents and short videos on the company, team, and product — as well as an interview process. Joshua took the lead on the application process with the support of his co-founders — even editing the videos for submission.
In addition, the timing of the accelerator did not fit with his high school calendar. This was a clear indication that this accelerator was not conceived with the idea that anyone still in school would participate, especially high school. Joshua had to ask his principal at Catholic High for permission to participate in the accelerator since the program would cause him to miss the first month of school in the fall. The principal agreed, but, in true Catholic High form, had Joshua commit to work with his teachers individually to ensure all of his assignments would be turned in on time despite his physical absence from the classroom. Joshua agreed and complied. His grades suffered due to the work load of a full-time business and school, but he complied. A good economics lesson in opportunity cost and a good lesson in doing “whatever it takes” when you believe in something.
The idea of a teen CEO and founder participating in a startup accelerator, designed for more experienced founders and companies, was improbable. But wouldn’t you know it — Joshua pulled through. Joshua’s decision to apply for a startup accelerator, as improbably as it was, has changed his life and put him on a path toward entrepreneurial success. His was the only U.S.-based company out of three selected for investment that year. The other two teams were from India. You can’t win if you don’t play.
In the end, Joshua’s accelerator experience shows us, too, that we shouldn’t allow our dreams and goals be limited by our logical assessments, our assumptions for why “it will never work” or our concerns about how difficult it will be. When we take the road less traveled and push ourselves toward a goal, we unlock something inside us that expands our horizons and gives us even greater courage.
To all the young entrepreneurs out there, I encourage you to keep traveling the road less traveled, even if it means bucking systems that haven’t yet caught up with the reality that entrepreneurship at any age is possible in today’s economy.