My Thoughts on and Experiences with Youth Entrepreneurship
When people hold debates on Entrepreneurship vs Employment, most of the conversation centres “working on your own time / terms” and “making more money as an entrepreneur than you would as an employee”. These are both wonderful things, and great aspirations for the most of us.
I think that there is a lot of biases from both sides of the debate – those who opt to pursue entrepreneurship, and those who would prefer to remain employed.
I have been an entrepreneur / business person since I was 17 years old (10 years, if you are counting).
My first business was selling nail polish (a story for a different day), where I learnt to be able to identify an opportunity and be able to offer monetisable solutions. In my first business, I was making >2000% percent profit. Not 20, not 200, but 2000% profit. I was not doing anything unethical (well at least I was not the one being unethical in the line of trade).
In my first business, I was selling original nail polish from South Africa. I would buy the nail polish at MK150 – MK200 in Mangochi, and I would sell it at its true value – MK4,000 to working-class women in Lilongwe. I have no idea how the suppliers were able to provide the nail polish at such low prices. I never asked, and I will allow you to form your own assumptions and conclusions.
I saved a lot of the money I made in that year, and with a small loan from my father, I invested in selling high-heeled shoes. This was my second attempt at business – was also an okay business, but not as profitable as my first. I may have made some loses, and most importantly, I learnt a lot about business.
I later went on to invest the rest of the money I had saved in a salon – I put in a bid, and I won the contract to run the Chancellor College (now known as the University of Malawi) campus salon for my final years of college. I spent so much time running that business (at the expense of my academia, another story for another day) – also more lessons and some regrets for me.
After undergrad, I told my parents I was moving to the capital city – Lilongwe to try and do business. My parents were for employment, of course, and I did try to find a job when I got to Lilongwe. I was immediately hired by a small startup as a Comms and PR officer, and I, within a brief, while I knew that this particular role was not for me.
I knew at the very least that if I was going to be employed, it was to be in the development sector. 6 years in, and two internships + two two fulltime jobs later, I can affirmatively say that I come the most alive in the public / development sector (unless running my own businesses of course, which are also at the core of them public – serving).
I went on to leave my first public service job to set up and work fulltime on two companies (one for-profit and one non-profit) and several businesses – a journey that nearly completely burnt me out, but not without every lesson the journey could give me.
I am probably one of the few people in the world who is both pro-entrepreneurship and pro-employment in equal measure. I have great things, and with my privileges and biases, very little ill to say about either. I have much ill to say about the capitalism as a system, but I also know (or at least have very little faith in that) we are not deconstructing it in our lifetime.
As a young professional and a young entrepreneur, I have experienced the privilege of being both an employer and an employee several times.
Both being an employee and being an entrepreneur have their own advantages and disadvantages. Entrepreneurs are often portrayed as happy and free, risk takers that have the benefits of controlling their own time and income. They often have uncapped potential earning and can jump from industry to industry using and developing business skills that ultimately add to their success and experience.
In the real light of day though, many entrepreneurs fail. They don’t have the guaranteed income and work available that a contracted employee can enjoy. Unfortunately, they often don’t have a team of colleagues to rely and depend on, a paycheck to cash at the end of every month, a company car and medical insurance, and a chance of career progression within the same company in exchange for years of service.
From the complexities of registering your company through to daily bills, being tax compliant, failures, fallouts and business pitfalls. The life of an entrepreneur is not as star-studded as people would believe when they see the word appear in the press.
When we think of young entrepreneurs (and I speak from experience), we often think of their annual company reports which reflect big big numbers and lots of awards. We think of all the highs, because let’s be honest none of us are really highlighting or putting in centre our lows.
However, the diversification available to those that chase their dreams with new inventions and madcap ideas can often lead to self-satisfaction and an abundance in confidence that will help across all areas of life.
In today’s (especially post-Covid) society, there is more and more opportunity for people to succeed and thrive as a freelancer and entrepreneur. The growth of the internet, remote working and artificial intelligence, along with the advancements in broadband and WIFI technology are making international freelancing easier and easier.
There are so many advantages and disadvantages (according the The Ladders) to both being an entrepreneur and an employee. Below, I share a few:
Advantages of being an employee
Leave benefits or holidays, are the times available each year for the employee to have some time out and enjoy paid time when they are not working for their employer.
They may take a holiday or choose to work on their personal relationships, hobbies, exercise, or simply rest.
These periods of holiday can give employees the chance to really take stock of their lives and refresh themselves. This means that when they return to work they will have more focus and energy to complete their daily tasks with a new vigor and satisfaction.
Obviously, a huge advantage of employment vs entrepreneurship is guaranteed income. This fixed amount of money deposited on a weekly or monthly basis into bank accounts means financial security for the employee and their family.
Employers pay the employee for their services towards their organization. This pay often includes a range of allowances and benefits which may include, taxes, insurance, health insurance, provident funds and company shares.
Sometimes the family of the employee will also be covered by a health plan. Even after the age of retirement, the employee may continue to get private or state income, leaving them and their families secure for the rest of their lives.
Fixed Working Hours
Employees will often agree on fixed working hours that will be guaranteed and outlined in a contract between themselves and the organization that employs them.
Overtime or extra hours available will be worked at the employee’s discretion and will not be compulsory. Hours exceeding that in the contract are called ‘overtime’ and are often remunerated at a rate higher than the standard hours agreed when employment begins.
Sometimes an agreement is set out between an employer and employee to receive lieu time in exchange for working hours that exceed that of their contract. Hours worked in lieu can be saved and exchanged for longer periods of holiday or extra days off work.
In employment, you are often assigned a particular role and are only responsible for performing the tasks that are directly related to that role whilst you are working.
You don’t need to interfere or worry with how other people are performing across the company, as you will still receive your payment as long as you complete all the tasks that are expected and outlined for your individual role.
You will probably be periodically appraised for your role and this will affect your chances of promotion and also your success rate within your profession. Appraisals can be a good opportunity to discover your individual strengths and weaknesses.
Disadvantages of being an employee
Employees have to follow their employer’s instructions and can become dependent on their monthly income as they buy things on finance and slip into debt.
Employees with big families have added pressure and can feel a growing dependency on their job as their family grows and expands.
The income of an employee is often limited to their agreed salary or hourly rate, meaning that is capped and can’t be expanded without overtime or a pay rise.
Limited income puts constraints on almost every part of life. Some employees may be incentivized with bonuses etc. However, they are often capped or limited until they change jobs or get a pay rise.
Limited Development Scope
Again, the constraints of employment within a specific industry or role can really minimize an individual’s scope for development.
Employees often have fewer choices for career progression and can only advance within a very specific industry.
In a competitive world, people are disposable. Jobs are not always guaranteed for life and employers can often sack employees without giving a solid reason. Of course, this all depends on how professional the contract of employment is. But job security is never 100% guaranteed. Some companies can appear to be doing well and then fold without apparent reason.
Advantages of being an entrepreneur
Growth in Career
As an entrepreneur, you have the ability to fulfill your goals and aspirations as an individual. You will not have a boss in place to interfere or make decisions for you. Your life is your own and the amount and size of the risks that you take is your choice.
Entrepreneurs all have the opportunity to rule their chosen business sector. Obviously, this is decided by the market demand for their product or service along with the amount of drive and determination harbored by the individual.
With no boss in place, the entrepreneur is free to make their own decisions in both their personal and professional life. They can work whenever they want, however many hours they want, and sometimes from wherever they want.
They will be able to direct employees and have other people helping them to make money and achieve their goals.
However, they will need to be natural leaders and set up standards along with roles and responsibilities for their employees. The more they can outsource, the easier their life will become.
Flexible Working Hours
Ultimately, the entrepreneur will choose working hours that suit them. While some entrepreneurs will work 80-hour weeks when they first start out, others will have the people and resources in place to sit back and work as little as possible.
The Ability to Earn
The financial growth for an entrepreneur is much greater than that of an employee constrained to a salary or an hourly rate decided and agreed on at the start of their employment.
They will own their company outright and often have a large share of the business profits.
They have the potential to earn as much as they want to, depending on the demand for their product or services.
Change and Exploration
If an entrepreneur sees a new opportunity to make more money by expanding or re-training, they have the choice to do so.
Entrepreneurs are often out networking and making new business contacts and opportunities. This means they are the creators of their own destiny and can always change and explore new horizons.
Disadvantages of being an entrepreneur
With no guaranteed income, no boss for guidance, no colleagues for support… Entrepreneurship can prove a stressful and lonely place. For all the advantages that it offers, it has its pitfalls. The stress of being your own boss, marketing department, legal department, networker, and accountant can prove too much for some people.
Starting a business can need a lot of money depending on the type of business you are starting. Some entrepreneurs start out in debt because they have had to borrow money in order to cover their start-up costs.
This investment can have a huge impact on performance and can lead to debt.
The entrepreneur is at the scrutiny of his or her clients at all times. A bad reputation can lead to a loss in earnings and can incur debt on prior investments.
Long Working Hours
Some businesses need to work a lot of hours in order to get off the ground and be successful.
If you are starting a business that has many competitors, sometimes man hours are the only way of building a solid reputation and customer base.
Working long hours can have a negative impact on your family and social life and also your health.
When starting a business and for the first few years of trading, there may not be much disposable income available. This can affect your individual finance rating and lead to trouble securing mortgages, cars, mobile telephones and other lifetime essentials.
Are you ready to face this level of financial instability?
Going it alone and deciding to become an entrepreneur carries a lot of risks. The risk of failing, the risk of others witnessing your failure. The risk of debt, the risk of hungry competitors, the risk of bankruptcy… It’s not for the light-hearted!
My Take on Youth Entrepreneurship
I have been a young entrepreneur for close to a decade now, and I have had a lot of successes (more successes than failures) on this path. I deeply believe in entrepreneurship, and I have set up ventures which will continue to support young entrepreneurs, even in my absence and / or without my personal involvement.
As a young entrepreneur, I also believe myself very well-equipped with the experience and understanding of what it takes to be and succeed in youth entrepreneurship.
There is a very non-glamorous side to youth entrepreneurship which young people must be aware before taking the “paid everyday!” and “work on my own hours!” path.
It is important for young people to realise that building a business is anything but easy. It is not all glamour, speaking engagements and award ceremonies.
There are many late nights. I remember working 16+ hour days when I ran my business fulltime. I lived and breathed my business, so much so that I burnt out so badly.
There are days I feel myself (and my brain too) not functioning as well as I did before I was a fulltime entrepreneur, and I know I am experiencing the effects of 4 years of building several businesses with little to no professional experience in the capitalism and its frameworks as a young person.
Speaking of experience, entrepreneurship requires so much experience, regardless of which field you are in. As an entrepreneur, you often do not have the amount and quality of human resource it takes to build a business. You have to learn so much so fast (grateful); from talent acquisition to human resource & finance management, and everything in between. You often have to handle these multiple job positions by yourself.
In my years as a fulltime entrepreneur, I did experience the highs of entrepreneurship. I got the funding, I had the support, I built a relatively good team, I received the awards, and I built meaningful brands.
I also experienced the lowest of lows with entrepreneurship. I struggled with burnout, failed at talent acquisition + nurturing, and maybe even lost a lot of money along the way. There is so much to learn about the capitalism, before you can really try to conquer and excel in it.
I knew I needed more knowledge and experience to be able to run my business, so I did every possible thing I could to get there – from I enrolling in a Master of Science in Entrepreneurship degree programme, to applying for and getting into several Entrepreneurship Fellowships. I even applied for the graduate programme which landed me in now New York. All these have been efforts to gain the skills and knowledge I require to get better at running a business.
I feel this needs be highlighted especially for young entrepreneurs – you need a lot of experience to be able to run a business successfully, and/or you need to hire people with a lot of experience in running a business. I learnt this the hard way, and lost a lot of time and money along the way.
I think that youth entrepreneurship and youth leadership is great, but I also know that (and it has taken me time and plenty self-awareness) to know that some things just take time. I will soon hold a Master of Science degree in Entrepreneurship, and I have been a part of some of the best fellowships for young entrepreneurs – and I know enough now be able to affirmatively share with you that there are some things you will only learn by doing, and that this takes time.
I think my current decision to go back to employment within the framework of my current graduate programme (on-the-job training) was the biggest risk I have taken in my career – leaving my business completely without me, for the sake of my personal (and in hindsight longterm business) growth. It took so many days of thinking and some nights of crying to come to making peace with my decision.
I understand that the entrepreneur is the foundation of any business, and that you have the power to make or break a business. I understand that my current decision would very well wreck my business, and I hope that in the longterm, this is not my case. I made peace with this possibility, before making my decision to leave my business for a while.
For the foreseeable while, I will remain employed. I am working in my field of passion, and learning so much (not the same things I learnt in running my own business, but now internal processes of managing a company / businesses).
I know that this experience is good for both my personal and professional growth. I am able to see (especially from my seniors who have years of professional experience in project and people management) where I lacked, and where I need to improve.
At the moment, I do not know if/when I will return to being a fulltime entrepreneur. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. Time will tell, but I am aware in my heart that as a young professional and a young entrepreneur, I need to develop, and in this season of my life, this is my* only way how.
Whatever you choose, employment or entrepreneurship, at whatever stage in your career, remember that the goal is to conquer the capitalism. There are two ways to do so – rising in the corporate ladder as an employee, or becoming an entrepreneur and creating a good and sustainable business.
Whatever decisions you take, remember the goal. I want you to remember that whether you are an entrepreneur or an employee, both are slaves to the capitalism. Very few entrepreneurs disrupt, and we all know there’s a lot of unethical bits which go into becoming a $billionaire. Also remember to never condescend too much to employment, because as an entrepreneur, you will need and have to respect your employees. Unless your intent is to be a sole-trader, it does not make sense to hold and publicly share a disdain/condescension for employment as an employer.
My take on thriving in the capitalism – be more passionate about your why, and less about the money you earn. I have always believed that for as long as I love and I am great at what I do, money will always follow me.
I also leave you with the reminder that as my business(es) last year made in excess of $150,000, I made close to nothing (net), invested nearly every penny I earned (no regrets), worked 16+ hours a day, and nearly lost my mind while at it.
Entrepreneurship is an extreme long-game, and you have to be willing to play and pay the price. It is a very worthwhile long-game, and I have few to no regrets (at worst, I learned a lot), but I want this truth known, because it is so easy to be inspired only by the light and great highs.
I also want you to remember that your journey is uniquely yours, and that though advice from those who have gone before us is wonderful and often (even when not delivered correctly) well-meaning, we should pursue what feels right for us.
As a young professional, my advice would be to centre your personal and professional development. Always make sure where you are placed, you are growing. Reserve every right to feel inspired by those who have gone before you, but do what you feel is right for you and your journey.
I am grateful for that you take an inch of inspiration from my journey, and I hope the capitalism and its theatrics never consume me enough to wish to dwell in the light alone, so much so that I become dishonest with you.