Author Talks: The teenager’s guide to business

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Christine Chen chats with Jason Liaw and Fenley Scurlock about their new book, Down to Business: 51 Industry Leaders Share Practical Advice on How to Become a Young Entrepreneur (Penguin Random House, March 2024). The coauthors compiled insights from various business owners, CEOs, and innovators to create a road map for aspiring entrepreneurs of all ages. An edited version of the conversation follows, and you can also watch the full video at the end of the page. To see how the authors answered rapid-fire questions, see sidebar, “Rapid-fire questions with the authors.”

Why did you write this book?

Jason Liaw: We’re both young entrepreneurs, both 16 years old, and we took an interest in business at a young age. I was originally a coder. I developed websites for local businesses and organizations. [Fenley Scurlock] is more of an artist; he sells artisanal soaps to local businesses.

We came together during the pandemic to brainstorm the next big thing. During that time, we spent hours thinking about ideas and realized that some of the skills we learned in our business, like writing a pitch to investors or budgeting, weren’t the same skills being taught in the classroom. Then, we researched and learned that about 50 percent of Generation Z is interested in becoming their own boss, and more than 75 percent of Generation Alpha wants to do the same.

We researched and learned that about 50 percent of Generation Z is interested in becoming their own boss, and more than 75 percent of Generation Alpha wants to do the same.

Jason Liaw

Fenley Scurlock: We learned that the entrepreneurial mindset is not only useful for entrepreneurs but is also sought after by employers. That mindset can also apply to leadership and life; it’s a fundamental skill everyone should use.

Additionally, we planned to speak to CEOs, business leaders, and other successful people who “made it” so we could hear their stories. The goal was to bridge the gap between their experience and our passion and drive, so we could develop a necessary business mindset for our careers and solve some of the biggest issues that our generation faces: climate change, AI [artificial intelligence], data privacy, social media, and social justice issues.

What was your writing process like?

Fenley Scurlock: To start, we contacted local businesses we admired and researched companies on LinkedIn. We hoped that those businesses would discuss their journey with us, and in most cases, they agreed to speak with us. To our surprise, entrepreneurs were enthusiastic about talking to two teenagers about their success. We then grew our network and expanded the number of people we interviewed.

Jason Liaw: We looked for diverse perspectives, especially on social media. There, we connected with young entrepreneurs with unique brands and core missions. For example, we interviewed Brandon and Sebastian [Martinez], founders of Are You Kidding Socks, and Alina Morse, the founder of Zolli Candy. They all had a specific goal: to solve a problem. Children and teenagers believe they have a fresh perspective on tackling issues.

Each interview taught us valuable lessons on how to commit to your business and successfully launch it.

How long was the writing process?

Fenley Scurlock: One of the important things we’ve learned while writing is how valuable patience is. It’s been a four-year journey.

It wasn’t only finding people to interview; the process also involved continuous changes during fact-checking, copyediting, and audiobook recording. There are numerous moving pieces in writing a book, such as locating a publisher and negotiating a publishing contract. It’s an in-depth operation that takes a lot of time and is similar to starting a business.

Is being an entrepreneur difficult because of your age?

Jason Liaw: I started my business by building websites for local Asian establishments, and not all of those business owners speak English. As a member of that community, I’m able to connect with them beyond the age barrier.

Fenley Scurlock: Our goal in writing this book is to show that entrepreneurship is a field for anyone of any age, and there are no barriers to entry. Entrepreneurship is something that you can start today; it’s something anyone can do.

We lacked resources and had to figure out how to start a business independently. To solve that problem, we offer a guide to entrepreneurship that demonstrates how you can launch a business, no matter your age, and gives readers the skills, advice, and resources to get started.

Entrepreneurship is something that you can start today; it’s something anyone can do.

Fenley Scurlock

Who’s your target audience for this book?

Jason Liaw: Our target audience is anyone in elementary, middle, or high school—maybe younger than that. We want the knowledge to be as accessible as possible. We hope that someone will see themselves as the next entrepreneur, the next founder, or the next innovator.

Fenley Scurlock: It’s also worth noting that our book is suitable for people of all ages and can even provide adults with advice and insights. One of the core principles is that there’s no barrier to entering entrepreneurship—that principle applies to the book as well.

What inspired the book’s various leadership archetypes?

Fenley Scurlock: We organized the book into seven different leadership archetypes: the disruptor, the visionary, the champion, the innovator, the creator, the investor, and the strategist. These archetypes represent varying types of entrepreneurs.

The archetypes help readers understand what type of entrepreneur they want to become; we hope they give the readers a starting point.

We organized the book into seven different leadership archetypes: the disruptor, the visionary, the champion, the innovator, the creator, the investor, and the strategist.

Fenley Scurlock

Why is diversity an important theme in Down to Business?

Jason Liaw: In our entrepreneurial journey, we’ve worked with many different types of people. Whether they’re members of the LGBTQIA+ community or immigrants, they all provide varying perspectives. When you ensure that you spotlight diversity, the reader can find something they identify with.

Fenley Scurlock: Diversity isn’t just important to us, but also to Generation Z. Our generation believes that diversity makes us stronger, rather than weaker.

We reflected the world through the different types of people we interviewed. We highlighted people of every background, ethnicity, gender, and age. The more diversity you surround yourself with, the better your business will be.

What was your favorite interview?

Fenley Scurlock: We loved everyone we interviewed. After all the time we spent talking with and learning from them, they felt like close friends and mentors. Choosing a single favorite is difficult, but a few people really inspired me.

The first is [Lynk Global CEO] Charles Miller. His mission is to give everyone worldwide access to the internet through satellite phones. He also believes that in the next century, traveling to space will become just as easy, universal, and affordable as flying on an airplane.

Brandon and Sebastian Martinez also inspired me. They started their business at eight and six, respectively, which resonated with me since I started a business at the age of seven. Their story paralleled my journey, but instead of taking their experience and using it to write a book, they’ve continued their business and grown it to shocking levels. Their growth has been inspirational.

Jason Liaw: I loved the interview with Michael Krakaris, the cofounder of Deliverr. His high school senior quote was interesting: “When opportunity doesn’t come knocking, build a door.”

His mission is to push down barriers. His shipping service provided one of the world’s largest corporations, Amazon, with same-day shipping and delivery. It was a “David and Goliath” story and a seemingly impossible task. Deliverr is now owned by Shopify, one of the largest e-commerce platforms. His story taught me about identifying a niche and getting behind that idea fast.

What were the main takeaways from the interviews?

Jason Liaw: The interviews taught us about developing a growth mindset, improving from your mistakes, and perfecting your [business] pitch. We envision the book as a road map to navigating some of those challenges.

Fenley Scurlock: Each person taught us so much, and we apply those lessons to our businesses. We learned how to handle rejection, negotiate a contract, and receive feedback from others. We also applied that advice to completing our book. We learned so much from those interviews, and we hope the readers will too.

What surprised you the most while writing this book?

Jason Liaw: We were surprised by how many business aspects applied to writing this book, such as cold emailing, negotiations, making pitches, marketing, and outreach. Down to Business is now our business.

Fenley Scurlock: We heard a common theme during the creation of the book: there’s no such thing as overnight success. Outwardly, something may seem successful quickly, but that’s due to years of arduous work.

Additionally, we were impressed with how people were willing to speak with two teenagers. Busy CEOs took time from running their corporations to advise and help the next generation.

Watch the full interview

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