Entrepreneurship is on the rise: More people worked for themselves in 2010 than during each of the previous 15 years, according to a report by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a think tank that focuses on entrepreneurship.
U.S. News talked with Gerber about thinking outside the corporate box, tips for launching a business, and how he jumped on the entrepreneurial train. Excerpts:
Why is entrepreneurship so hot right now?
Job numbers are terrible, youth employment especially is in the toilet … There needs to be some other way of creating an income. Because frankly, you've got all these boomerangs, as they're called, kids that go and get in [school] debt up to their eyeballs and then come back home and don't have any way out based on the system that taught them to get to that point. So what we're seeing for the first time is young people in droves are looking at the low-cost barriers of entering the youth entrepreneurship space.
I think entrepreneurship is on the rise, but at the same time, I don't think it's ever gone away and had a resurgence. I think it's been a steady increase for decades.
You mentioned the low-cost barrier to entrepreneurship. What do you mean by that?
For example, today you can have a virtual office instead of having a office in New York City and save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on the startup in rent alone. You can work out of your parents' basement as long as you have a URL and programming skills. You can sell products before you buy them from your vendors based on careful deal-making. Now more than ever, there's a lot of different ways to enter the entrepreneur ranks without necessarily the old inventory or large footprint needed in a retail location.
I view it as a positive that banks aren't lending, because it's making people smarter by thinking about, how can I get started immediately rather than depend on [a loan] that I really don't have control over? So they're thinking of ways to scale back their businesses rather than relying on the good old, hey, we can just go to the bank and get a loan—which can ultimately make people sloppy because they then, all the sudden, have a pocketbook they think they can spend.
You're obviously an advocate of entrepreneurship, but it's not right for everyone, right? How can recent graduates figure out whether it's right for them?
I think there's a lot of young people, especially now, entering the non-traditional workforce, the entrepreneurial workforce, not because they thought for their entire life they were going to be entrepreneurs, but it may be out of necessity and desperation. And I think they're finding a love and a passion for it where they didn't know that existed.
There are always going to be people who are natural entrepreneurs verses non-natural entrepreneurs … Not everyone can be the forefront person of their company, but I certainly think if your back is against the wall [without a job], and you're smart about thinking who your partners can be, who can fill in your weaknesses with their strengths, I think that anyone can learn to become an entrepreneur.
What is the Young Entrepreneurship Council? Can anyone join?
No. It's an invite-only organization [with 275 members]. It's basically an exclusive group of the top young entrepreneurs right now in America—soon we're going to expand internationally—with two goals. One is to connect with like-minded individuals so we can further develop relationships and business-building ideas. And the other [goal] is to try to teach young people today how entrepreneurship can be considered an a viable career path, [an alternative] to youth unemployment and underemployment.
How can aspiring entrepreneurs who can't yet join the YEC benefit from the organization?
We have theYEC.org, which is basically a help desk for young entrepreneurs. We create a lot of original content … We also allow young people to send us their questions about building a business and we have the collectives answer these questions. We do a variety of off-line programming like panel discussions.
Can you tell us about your background? How'd you become the go-to person on young entrepreneurship?
Five years ago … I'd just come out of my first venture that was successful. My previous venture, which I detail in my book, Never Get a Real Job, basically shows how I took a company that was making tens of thousands of dollars a month in revenue down to bankruptcy, and only having $700 left to my name. Using that education, I built my next business called Sizzle It!. Two years later [my column in Entrepreneur Magazine] became pretty much the world's most syndicated youth entrepreneurship column ... The entire time I've done this has been based on businesses that are not [virtual like] Facebook, but companies like yearbook businesses or video-production firms. That's my background: I build brick-and-mortar services businesses.
Do you feel comfortable telling us how you earn your income?
I have percentages in various businesses that I have either personally started or invested in that range from yearbook and video-production firms to restaurant groups that I've invested in … It's all across the board.
I'm doing a lot more media-personality work … But my original businesses support me and my family very handsomely … Definitely Sizzle It! [accounts for much of my income]. But as for where my focus lies today, I kind of oversee [Sizzle It!], but The Young Entrepreneur Council [which is a non-profit] truly is going to be my main focus going forward.
How old are you?
For anyone interested in going the entrepreneurial route, what's a good way to get started?
Remove your ego from the equation entirely. A lot of these people that saw The Social Network [movie] think if they and their buddy get in a bar and write something on a napkin, they're going to be billionaires. There's many things wrong with that. We have to tell young people today, it's not about the glitz, the glamour, and the sexiness, it's about building something that can sustain you, your family, and your partnerships. If you become a multi-millionaire, wonderful, but it's not going to happen overnight. And chances are, it might never happen, and if it does, it's built on extreme hard work and a sound business.
I will never advocate against tech, but speaking from my personal experience, because I'm not a tech guy, I will say that in this economy, it makes sense more than ever to build a simple service that is scalable over time that you can be selling day one instead of day 50, verses having to first figure out what you're going to code … By utilizing simple, easy online software and service tools, let's say Weebly to build your website, [you can] really build your business over time and then reinvest based on cash flow.
Never expect money. Don't build businesses around finances, don't build businesses around theoretical investment dollars … Until you prove your business works, no one's going to want to give you money.
Some people would say it makes sense for most new graduates to gain experience in the traditional workforce before starting their own company. Do you think there's any truth in that?
If I wanted to learn about Robert's Rules of Order and being a third-tier assistant to the marketing firm, then yes, that would be wonderful.
The folks in the corporate world will say you can get structure and relationships and mentorship. Well, frankly, the structure doesn't make sense to an entrepreneurial life. The mentorship, you can be crafty and scrappy and try to get lunches like I did. I never had any sort of corporate experience. I never worked for anybody in my entire career other than myself. And when I wanted to find out information or meet someone, I either tried to partner with somebody, or I took people out to lunch, and that $50 education was more than I probably could've gotten in working two years of corporate experience.
I've seen corporate people who try to run their startups like the corporate background they come from, and those fail miserably. Because they're expecting somebody's internal budget to cover [costs] … Those kinds of mentalities do not translate.
Was there something about your upbringing that helped you think outside the box? How'd you develop that entrepreneurial mindset?
In terms of the ah-ha moment, when I knew I was never going to work for the man, that happened when I was a sophomore in college. The short story of it is, I was working on a startup concept ... When I was about three weeks away from launching it, my internship coordinator for college called me into a meeting and said that in order for me to get the proper credits for graduation, I needed to basically apply for an internship and work it … So I tabled the startup saying, alright, in two months I'll reopen this, after I'm done with my commitment. So I got an internship in the media business that frankly was hell … When I came back to college and thought, OK, it's time to get back to the startup again, somebody on the campus had launched an identical business to what I was thinking of, and I was devastated.
How do you structure your days?
I'm the first one to admit, I'm still figuring out the work-life balance. In the last year alone, I launched my first book, I launched an organization that's been very hot in the press, the YEC ... I had my first child. I still have my three businesses and a variety of angel projects. So it's been kinda crazy. But thankfully throughout my entire entrepreneurial career to this point, I've been scaling; I've been thinking of ways to streamline and automate. So I'm not really in the businesses that I started to the point where I have to make every decision or sign every check.
Every day truly is different. I basically assign tasks and my team assigns tasks to me at the beginning of a week with the goal of completing by the end of a week … I find solace in trying to be extremely organized and just roll with the punches.