What I told 255 High School Students About Entrepreneurship

I recently spoke at the Vermont Entrepreneurship Week lunch in front of 255 high school students. I was one of four entrepreneurs who were selected to tell their story - how we got started, the importance of business education,  a couple networking tips, etc.

I had nothing prepared.

I ran out of time. I had no notes. Nothing. I totally winged it. And it paid off. After admitting I had nothing prepared, I set into what felt so natural to me: story-telling. I could tell the students were connecting with what I had to say.

Oh, you're wondering what I said? Here's the gist in a neat, organized list of 7 things:

1. Network up

Your friends only know, like, five people. But, everyone else in the room with glasses, semi-gray hair, and well, they look older. They know everyone. Network with them. It's just more efficient. Why network with someone who knows no one when you can network with people who have already done what you're looking to do and know the people who you need to connect with to make something happen? Seriously. Network Up. It's going to be your best asset moving forward.

2. Done is better than perfect

This tip (which I recently learned) has helped increase my productivity ten-fold. If you know me at all, you know I'm a type-A, detail oriented, semi-control freak. But, being able to say things have been completed is so liberating. Sure, there isn't a cherry-on-top, but it's done. I can move on to the rest of my mega to-do list. The Vermont SBDC president loved this so much, she even wrote it down. Awesome. Now, if all the other type-A students could do the same thing, we'd get a heck of a lot more accomplished.

3. If you don't build your dreams, someone else will hire you to build theirs.

I ended with this quote. It's what I have hanging in my office, just above my monitor. It keeps me motivated to never want to go back to corporate America, wear a suit every day, etc. I want to build my dream - not yours. You can certainly help achieve mine - that's what a great team is for - but, I'm going for my dream first. The earlier you realize this, the earlier you can get started doing what you love and building your own dream. And it doesn't mean you can't do both. In fact, I recommend working full-time until you can break away and devote full-time resources to your dream. But, at least take the step to realizing your dream. Life is too short to not be going for your dreams.

4. Take psychology classes

Getting into the mind of your customers is so important. You need to know what pain points they suffer from (yes, even for gourmet mustard). You need to know the colors that create certain emotions. This is all consumer psychology. And it pairs beautifully with marketing. Neuromarketing is the future. If you'd like to read more about neuromarketing, this book will completely change your mind about marketing (pun intended).

5. You can't do it alone

My parents are the glue to my business. For larger businesses, it's their team (remember to always hire people smarter than you). Even solo founders have help - from family, friends, advisers, consultants, you name it. They've received help along the way. That's what is so great about entrepreneurship. You build a network worth its weight in gold. Start building your network right now - oh, and re-read lesson #1.

6. It's a roller coaster and when you go down, you go down.

A teacher asked me what some of my challenges were. And I was honest. One of my biggest challenges has been trying to keep myself emotionally balanced. I almost cried this week. I ate straight from the peanut butter jar multiple times. In the last two weeks, I've been over-whelmed, stressed, and pushed to my limits.  This is the bad of entrepreneurship, but I'm trying so hard to focus on the good. The good helps me grow. The good helps people believe. This is what it's like owning a business. When you go down, you go down, but when you go back up - it's so, so worth it.

7. Just try and make a couple hundred bucks.

A student in the back of the room (who I knew) asked a question about where we produce mustard, and I answered it, but I took the opportunity to turn it into an inspirational story about how he launched a small side project refurbishing old Nike shoes and making $450 in one week. If he could do it, any one of the students in the room could do it. Just get started. Have a small goal to make a few hundred bucks. You'll be surprised at what you'll achieve.

How'd the talk get received?

Super-well. I had multiple people come up to me afterwards to let me know how dynamic I was, how engaging I was, and how real it felt. I got that last comment a lot, actually. Many students appreciated how raw my talk was. How I was just so honest about my struggles. This was my response:

I used to sugarcoat everything. Things were always great - just peachy, if you will. The second I started telling it like it is, being honest, and raw, I got more respect, I built my credibility as an entrepreneur, and I got people to champion what I believed in.

Following the talk, I testified in-front of the House Commerce Committee at the Statehouse about the importance of entrepreneurship in school curriculum. I was passionately honest (if that can happen) about what I needed as a small business owner to take my company to the next level, too. All the legislators were thankful for my honesty. And that leads to the 8th tip, I wish I could have told those students:

Be honest. In fact, be brutally honest. Sugar-coating gets you nowhere. Plus, sugar is bad for you, so you should eat less of it.


Thanks to everyone who made Vermont Entrepreneurship Week possible. It was a blast speaking to over 250 high school students. I'm happy and honored I got the chance to make a difference in a least some of their lives.