By David Moody
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. 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. 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? 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.
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 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.
“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 high-achieving individuals doubt their accomplishments in the face of adversity. For young entrepreneurs, age is often a trigger for self-doubt, given outdated societal beliefs that young entrepreneurs aren’t as well-equipped as those senior to them.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. 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 improbable 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 to 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.
This article was part of the StartupDad Series, in which David Moody — father of a teen entrepreneur and founder of the StartupDad blog — explored the trials, tribulations, joys and achievements that young entrepreneurs and their friends and family face. Moody, a Little Rock resident, is a rock star in the world of entrepreneurship and innovation.