Young Entrepreneur Social: Seattle Has to Stop Eating its Young

1/9/12Follow @curtwoodward

Brayden Olson was frustrated. After a couple of years spent beating the bushes for successful young entrepreneurs in the Seattle area, the 24-year-old says he could only find a few people he considered peers.

And even worse, Olson says, was the lack of generosity he found among the 30-something generation of Seattle entrepreneurs that came up before him.

“A lot of them are doing great things. But it surprises me that the way they’re looking at this next generation is, ‘I’m going to help you out so that I make more money,’ when they’re already successful,” says Olson, who leads Novel, a startup that aims to bring game mechanics to business recruiting.

That attitude, he says, went something like this: “‘We’ll incubate you for a significant amount of your company, and we’ll make connections for you for a significant amount of your company, and we’ll give you our expertise for a significant amount of your company.’”

Olson’s answer is a new organization called the Young Entrepreneur Social, a group aimed at bringing successful under-30 entrepreneurs together for networking events and mentorship programs—particularly reaching out to other promising twentysomething entrepreneurs, and even high-schoolers who have an entrepreneurial bent.

The group already has thrown a pair of events, drawing 50 people to the first gathering on a yacht and about 80 to a “mansion party” in the North Bend area. They’re planning a third event for February, and hope to hit about 100 attendees.

Membership is free, but restricted mostly to entrepreneurs under 30 who have built business with either venture backing or $1 million in annual revenues. The idea is to have half of the crowd at a Young Entrepreneur Social event made up of those successful young businesspeople, with the balance representing promising up-and-comers who need connections, advice, and support to get to the next level.

The focus on the under-30 crowd isn’t just by chance, or because they’re feeling bruised from those mean married guys with mortgages. Olson says there are studies that bear out the anecdotal observation that big, world-changing tech companies are typically started by people in their 20s. (It’s a theory that brand-name investors like Ron Conway and Vinod Khosla also endorse.)

“There are some organizations that are out there that are really great for people entering their 30s or in their mid-30s. But they’re dealing with their houses and their spouses and having kids for the first time,” Olson says, leaving younger entrepreneurs feeling disconnected. “I know from some of these events, they started with younger membership but now they don’t really want the younger members anymore.”

Olson says he put up the money to get the events started, and the nonprofit seeks sponsorships to cover its mission. An annual budget in the neighborhood of $200,000 is envisioned to support the various programs, which will call on young entrepreneurs to give back.

The event side of the Young Entrepreneur Social is headed up by Colin Christianson, founder of the Seattle digital marketing startup Tenacious Ventures. Mentorship programs, including incubating selected startups at member businesses, will be headed by Morgan Carson, founder and designer of fashion startup Rene Ropas. The volunteer program, including outreach to young student-entrepreneurs, will be led by Jacquie Brown, a former Miss Washington and aspiring singer.

It’s another interesting idea for Seattle’s startup community, which is in the midst of one of those moments that can move a region into a higher echelon. As the big Silicon Valley companies come to town and raid talent from Microsoft or Amazon, they add more diverse company cultures and skills, which can enrich the DNA in the local tech gene pool. At the same time, we’re also seeing the continued growth of the TechStars incubator, fuel for more seed-stage investment, and a drive to recruit more angel investors.

Olson says that building the bridge for the youngest entrepreneurs is one of the missing ingredients in turning up the volume in Seattle’s startup scene. And he hopes it will help prevent more stories of the ones that got away—companies like Box, the hot enterprise storage startup that moved to the Bay Area in early 2006, a few years after being birthed by two Seattle-based college students.

“The bottom line is, if we want to see another Microsoft or another Amazon in our community, it is this audience that YES is targeting that we have to focus our attention on,” he says. “In every statistic, every time it’s happened it has been this demographic. “Cities can be a startup hub for a while and go away. And that’s what we’re at risk of doing.”

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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