How GenY Entrepreneurs are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit from Their Success
Joel Erb slid into the black limousine and settled in for the long road trip from Richmond, VA, to Manhattan. Wearing a somewhat oversized suit coat that he hoped made him look older than he was, he clutched the portfolio of website designs that he planned to present to executives at Calvin Klein, Armani, and Hugo Boss. He was a little nervous but also confident in the way that people with very little to lose typically are. Using a trial download of Flash, he had created the designs on the computer in his bedroom (aka “Suite 101”). It was 1998, and Web design was still an emerging profession; back then, a smooth-talking neophyte like Erb could generate enough interest in his mockups to cajole his way into appointments at those prestigious fashion houses. “I’ll be in New York in two weeks,” he told them, “and I’d love to meet with you.” He was 14 years old, and it would be his first trip outside the state of Virginia.
Erb’s previous Web design experience consisted of creating a website for his middle school and doing a bit of work for a local carpet-cleaning service and for some companies in the heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) industry. The son of working-class parents with limited financial resources, he had a passion for art and design and an impressive toolbox of self-taught technology skills. He also had a family friend with a limo company who was willing to make the drive to New York, open doors for him, and call him “Mr. Erb” whenever anyone was listening. “He pulled out all the stops for me,” says Erb. “I felt like Richie Rich.” The friend’s parents lived in Brooklyn, and they fed Erb a good dinner, put him up for a night, and helped him iron his clothes so that he’d look fresh for his Manhattan meetings.
Reality hit home the next day. The marketing director at one firm took a look at him and asked if his father was coming to the meeting, too. “Have you even reached puberty?” he sneered. Erb was given short shrift at the second meeting as well. But at the third, they asked him the magic question: “How much?” Erb can’t say which company it was because of a nondisclosure agreement, but he went back to Richmond, wrote a proposal, and ended up landing a $30,000 contract to create banner ads. It wasn’t a website design project, but it was a good start. “When the checks came to my house, my parents were completely stunned,” Erb says. The next few years were a whirlwind. Erb became the first high school student in Virginia to earn his diploma by taking classes on the Web, and he grew his company, now called INM United, to $1 million in revenue, only to be wiped out after 9/11. “We lost every single project in New York and a lot near Richmond,” he recalls. “I had to let all my employees go except two. And then I started getting panic attacks. I was an 18-year-old with the stress level of 40-year-old businessman.” With 80 percent of his business gone, he enrolled at the University of Richmond and built his company back up from his dorm room, drawing on advice from professors and local businesspeo-
ple. He reconceived INM, transforming it from a Web design firm into an integrated marketing company, and that would double his revenue.
Since then, Erb has been honored as a rising start by the Greater Richmond Technology Council, won a Small Business Administration (SBA) regional “Entrepreneur of the Year” award, and has been recognized as one of Virginia’s top “40 Under 40” entrepreneurs. He houses his staff of 12 in a leased 3,000-square-foot office situated in renovated warehouse space in the trendy Shockoe Bottom section of Richmond, where “we have mood lighting, a drum set and a little helicopter that we fly around the office,” he says proudly. Revenues in 2008 were in excess of $1 million.
At age 26, Erb has already been in business for longer than he’s been able to order a drink in a restaurant or attend an R-rated movie without sneaking in. Precocious? Sure. An anomaly? Well, not really. Over the course of more than 25 years of studying and writing about entrepreneurship, I can’t ever recall talking to so many business owners who started bona fide companies in their twenties or earlier. “I’ve got my own business” has not only replaced “I’m in a band” as the ultimate boast; it also has replaced “I’ve got a lemonade stand.”