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We're Young and We Get It

Oron Strauss, President and Chief Executive Officer, Net.Capitol, Inc.

A few months ago, Net.Capitol, Inc. -- the company I founded in 1995, when I was a fresh graduate of Dartmouth College -- was approached by a larger company, interested in acquisition. I was invited to give a presentation to the potential buyer's managers and directors, a solid, impressive -- and yes, older -- group of individuals who bring to the table years of experience in technology, software, and business.

I began by saying I was still young enough to ask my father for advice and that he told me the three keys to a great presentation were first, to have a great opening, second, have a terrific closing, and third, keep them close together.

Then, I talked about how Net.Capitol personified the youthful irreverence of today's Internet-related businesses, a quality I considered synergistic for the acquirer. Finally, after pausing a moment, I said that on a tangential note -- and to paraphrase former President Ronald Reagan -- I wouldn't hold their age and experience against them.

And, of course, they loved it.

Understanding the Age Card

In my presentation, I made age an issue because I firmly believe that age is an issue for today's entrepreneurs, especially those in technology-related businesses. In fact, I would go so far as to say that age is the issue. When I founded Net.Capitol, I was 23 years old. I am 26 now, and I manage a team of 18 people whose average age is also 26. The two key people on my management team are 23 and 29, and our oldest employee is 35.

Let there be no mistake about it: Our youth is integral to the advantage Net.Capitol has as an enterprise. We are successful, not in spite of our youth, but because of it.

As twentysomethings, of course, my generation is comfortable with the technologies that underlie today's fledgling companies in a way that preceding generations can never hope to be. We grew up with technology, after all. We understand not only what it is and how it works (although not all of us are necessarily familiar with the details under the hood), but also -- and this is crucial -- why it is poised to alter the business landscape in general.

Just as important, in a technologically driven environment, where what matters are speed and flexibility, we are better able than our elders to respond because we haven't learned the wrong way to do things. In short -- and there's no other way to put this -- we "get it."

It is my belief that almost anyone can learn to manage a company -- that is, after all, what you are taught in business school. Not everyone, however, "gets it." Not everyone can. A friend whose father is an accomplished insurance executive made the point that should his father launch an Internet company, he would bring impressive management skills to the endeavor that neither my friend nor I could hope to match. Yet he would need a technologically savvy partner who would likely be younger and who would have the leverage in the relationship.

Whereas the older businessman's age-honed expertise is fast becoming a commodity, the younger person's technological skills are the value-added in such a pairing. And "getting it" means being attuned to the value-added. In pretty amazing proportions, the people who "get it" tend to be younger.

Playing the Age Card

With technological savvy leveling the business playing field, a 26-year-old such as I is taken seriously as a CEO. With today's marketplace rewarding creative and aggressive thinking, speed and flexibility -- the hallmarks of my generation -- a company such as Net.Capitol can trump established entities.

What makes the difference is how we use the advantage we have because of our youth. When I stepped into that board meeting, for example, I could sense that our potential acquirer lacked a certain "cool." I felt that because we break the rules -- heck, I let my dog roam through our office -- we would have the edge.

Just how we play the youth card depends upon whom we encounter in a given situation. In our business, we can deal during the same day with old-style, inside-the-Beltway lobbyists and leading-edge technological entrepreneurs. Our strategy is to maintain our flexibility.

If the prospective customer is older, we're more likely to do a formal presentation describing how we can help boost profitability. While we are the younger folks providing technological solutions, we demonstrate that we are serious by downplaying our age as an issue and focusing instead on our knowledge of the customer's problems. If the customer is younger, on the other hand, we can use the peer relationship to our advantage, relating as contemporaries as well as business associates.

Matters become more interesting when a single client has both older and younger staff members. In such a case, we often split the responsibilities, with one of us focusing on the formal level and the other engaging informally.

Making Age Work For You

Now that you know that youth is an asset, you should maximize its value. Here are some thoughts for making it work:

Whatever Your Age, Use It. One key to entrepreneurial success is leverage; as a small company, you must make the best of every asset. Your age is part of who you are as an entrepreneur, so figure out how to make it work to your advantage.

Age is Relative. There are always folks out there who are younger (or older) than you. In some business relationships, I use my age to make others feel they are mentors to me; in other relationships, I am the mentor. It is a rare relationship where age doesn't have an impact. Figure out which side of a given pairing makes sense, and run with it.

You'll Always Be Older Tomorrow Than You Are Today. Don't get caught up too much with youth. A more established competitor of ours wastes an inordinate amount of time trying to reclaim its "cool" position rather than focusing on its strengths in the marketplace. I can only hope that when the next young company comes along and replaces us, we will use our greater age to our advantage.

Have Fun. One of the factors I like best about Net.Capitol is that as a young organization, we have fun. Not only are the hours in our day enjoyable, but our youthful energy and enthusiasm is a huge selling point with customers.

. . . . .

While I don't think I will ever stop asking my 55-year-old father for advice, I believe there is truth to my joking statement that I won't hold my elders' age and experience against them. Although they can help me fill in the gaps in my experience, I believe it is precisely because of those gaps that I am able to react more swiftly -- and thus, be a better entrepreneur. In a technological era, "getting it" is the key to success.

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