age is just a number: owning a startup at 21

by Celine
September 24, 2020

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to start my own business… but like, at the age of 30. I had my whole life plan mapped out in my head. First, I’d graduate from college, then get a job teaching dance or land a job at a global company, earn a stable income, start saving and investing, then I’ll finally have a safety net, both professionally and financially to embark on my entrepreneurial adventure. What type of business I wanted to own - I really couldn’t tell you. I’ve had dreams of starting a dance studio in my small beachtown in Malaysia, to opening a “cafe by day, cocktail bar by night” sort of gig in Europe. Point being, starting my own business has always been on my life bucket list.

Amidst the chaos of a global pandemic, I graduated college with a unique and irresistible opportunity to start a Gen-Z advertising agency with a team of fellow creatives & strategists. I hopped onboard with zero hesitation, but also zero inkling about what was to come. My life timeline fast-tracked itself by 9 years and before you know it, I was a 21 year-old marketer, business owner and entrepreneur.

My Gen-Z team and I are not alone on this young entrepreneurship journey. According to a recent Nielsen study, 54% of Gen-Z indicated they wanted to start their own company and 73% are freelancers by choice. The thought of monetizing passion projects, being debt-free, promoting diversity, flexibility and purpose in life, and avoiding big corporations/capitalism are all factors driving this generation’s entrepreneurial ambitions. In addition, with social media opening so many doors to pave your own career, Gen-Zs of all ages have the opportunity, resources and creativity to start anything.

What personally drew me to starting my own business came down to two things: expedited personal growth, and flexibility to pursue more than one passion. I was fortunate enough to intern at a couple mid-large sized advertising agencies, learning about the different departments and hierarchy structure. While it was part of my life plan to work for one of these global agencies, I was unmotivated by the idea that I had to wait 3-5 years before actually getting to perform tasks that I was interested in. This was not the case in our start-up. Being a co-founder meant I had a voice in determining our company values and culture, along with allocating specific roles that tailored to my strengths, skills and interests. For example, within the first 3 weeks of starting NinetyEight, I pitched a full campaign idea to a CEO of a healthy-food company. The adrenaline and excitement from that pitch lit a fire under my belly. I was 21, barely graduated university and here I was, pitching an original campaign to an executive. Wow.

Being my own girl boss also allows me to have the flexibility to explore other passions while still devoting my full attention to NinetyEight. As a dancer/artist, it was really important for me to continue expanding my artistic side through choreography and teaching dance, which would not be possible at a traditional 9-5.

As if being a start-up wasn’t hard enough, one of the biggest challenges of being an entrepreneur at a young age is being taken seriously. There have been times where people have commended our ideas for being innovative and disruptive, but finished the sentence with, “we’d prefer to collaborate with someone with more experience.” While it’s hard to subvert the bias of age equals experience, everyone has to start from somewhere right?

I’ll admit, being a Gen-Z entrepreneur and business owner is no walk in the park. We’ve all had to be scrappy with our personal finances, sacrifice the security and comforts of working at a traditional company, and work long hours (while still having fun ofc!). But, I’ve never felt more fulfilled in my life. If you’re thinking of starting your business, I encourage you to spend some quality time on research, whether that’s brushing up on basic accounting skills, doing a competitive analysis on your industry, reading about how to set-up your own LLC - utilize these resources to make a game plan. Another tip is to lean into your mentors and network. Chances are, they want you to succeed and will do anything to guide you in the right direction. If you need a little motivation to get your business up and running, check out sections 1, 8 and 10 of 98things to learn more about other inspiring young entrepreneurs.

To all the aspiring entrepreneurs: be bold, have grit, don’t quit, and most importantly, don’t forget that age is just a number.