How do we guide young entrepreneurs when the business world gets real?

By Martha Rush, Chief Educator-in-Residence

Last week, two of my entrepreneurship students came in before school to debrief.

Over the weekend, one of them, I’ll call her Alissa, was able to secure an impromptu meeting with a bubble tea shop manager, a potential customer for their venture’s biodegradable straws. (You can learn more about EcoSlurp’s product here.)

Alissa sat down with the manager and gave her best pitch for the straws, and the manager barraged her with questions:

  • Why should I buy these from you?

  • Who is your manufacturer?

  • Will you send me the specs?

  • Can you provide me with a script for training my employees?

All legitimate questions, but delivered with a more brusque, confrontational tone than Alyssa was used to. She was still reeling from the experience two days later and not sure how to respond appropriately.

“She was mean,” Alyssa said. “I don’t know if we want to work with her.”

As a teacher advising entrepreneurial students, I’ve seen this kind of situation before.

Many adults in our community will bend over backward to help teenagers launch a successful business — sometimes giving them even too much preferential treatment.

(It’s the same thing that happens when teenagers get involved in civic action. State representatives invite them to visit the legislature. School board members meet them for coffee. Most adults want students to have a “good” civic experience, so it becomes an inauthentic one.)

One local tea shop has been a great supporter of these students, and they’ve blasted out their support for EcoSlurp on Instagram and Facebook.

That’s fabulous, of course, but it’s not necessarily the full, real-world experience.

The real world is filled with not-so-nice people. It’s also filled with bottom-line oriented business people who might seem rude when they are really just being straightforward.

Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference.

So how to effectively guide my student, who is just a sophomore, through this experience?

I didn’t want to diminish what she was feeling. It’s hard when adults are demanding, and she wasn’t prepared for it. But I wanted to make sure she wasn’t taking it too personally — and that she will be better prepared next time.

First, I just listened to the full story and asked Alissa a few questions about the manager’s tone and body language. It seemed to me that she wasn’t really being mean. She was probably just conducting due diligence — and deciding whether to negotiate with a bunch of (potentially unreliable) kids. And her tone was a little sharp.

So I told Alyssa as much. I know this woman came off as abrasive, I said, but she’s running a business. She was actually treating you as an adult, which — if you think about it — is a sign of respect.

Alissa thought about it for a few minutes and agreed.

One of the key concepts behind the lean startup approach to entrepreneurship is learning from failure. Not just “learning” when something really blows up in your face, but learning from every piece of feedback, no matter how frustrating.

In fact, we send young entrepreneurs out into the community to test all of their business hypotheses by interviewing customers like this manager — sometimes complete strangers — and they often get honest but discouraging feedback.

That’s part of the process.

And they learn to bounce back from it. They learn that all information is good information, and they learn to listen to their customers without judging or getting defensive. They even learn to laugh about it later.

The beauty of this process is that these teenage entrepreneurs develop an incredible skill set, including divergent thinking, interviewing, writing, speaking, self-confidence and resilience.

A few days after our conversation, Alissa followed up with me. Turns out they were able to work something out with the tea shop manager, and now she’s stocking their straws.

Next time, I think, she won’t be so flustered when someone challenges her. She’ll be ready to answer.