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Luke Lintz was at the gym in 2016 when his headphone wires got in the way of his bench press. It wasn’t the first time it had happened, and the 16-year-old had had enough. At the time, wireless headphones were just emerging, and Lintz couldn’t find many on the market in North America. He decided it was the perfect business opportunity. He found a product in China, compiled $10,000 of his and his older brother’s savings, and together they purchased their first batch of wireless earbuds later that year — the same year Apple released the AirPods.

The only marketing they did was on Instagram. “We were basically a meme page to begin with, which brought in millions of views to our Instagram page,” Lintz said. Instead of focusing their posts on the headphones, they posted memes and tacked on ads for the earbuds in the captions. Within the first six months, they sold all 500 units they had purchased. “It was the perfect example of right product, right timing,” he said.

Shipping costs were covered by the customers, so Lintz had to pay only for camera equipment for filming promo videos and a small monthly warehousing fee. He was able to scale the business to more than $600,000 in revenue by 2018, when he graduated from high school. “I didn’t have this huge grand vision of what it would turn into,” Lintz told me. “It was more to fill my time with something productive.”

Twenty years ago, Lintz’s business would have been an impossible dream. Before social media, online access to Chinese products, and services like Shopify, setting up a similar business would have taken months of work and a lot of cash to get off the ground. Bernhard Schroeder, a lecturer for the Fowler College of Business at San Diego State University, remembers when running an e-commerce site required $50,000 to $100,000 worth of software. “Now you can rent Shopify as an e-commerce solution in the cloud for $50,” he told me. “The access-to-technology barrier has come way down.”

Other aspects of starting a company have also become easier. “It used to be that you had to meet someone face-to-face and they had to trust you,” Schroeder said. “You couldn’t find other entrepreneurs easily and network with them and ask, ‘What did you do right? What did you do wrong?'”

Over the past couple of decades, the entrepreneurial landscape has changed dramatically. The ease of social-media marketing, cheap business software, and accessible data-analysis tools have significantly reduced infrastructure costs. Now the name of the game is branding. With a lower barrier to entry, entrepreneurs have become more diverse and more representative of the American population since 1996. And since 2020, the number of applications for new businesses has spiked dramatically. In an October Morning Consult survey, half of Gen Zers said they wanted to become an entrepreneur — and in this new environment, the generation is uniquely set up to succeed. All they need is an idea, a domain name, and a dream.

Before the internet, starting a business was a serious hassle. Access to market research, industry trends, and competitor analysis, for instance, was limited and often pricey. To get the word out, you had to advertise in the newspaper, get your product on the radio or TV, or send mail directly to prospective customers. It was difficult, if not impossible, to determine how successful any one marketing campaign was, and each route would set you back a pretty penny. Testing new ideas and products required physical inventory, costly infrastructure, and extensive marketing efforts. And data collection for most startups was a nascent concept.

Even just 15 years ago, the tracks for starting up a company hadn’t been laid yet. All the mundane parts of business — bookkeeping, building a website, project management — were extremely time-consuming and inefficient.

“Entrepreneurship back then wasn’t as sexy,” Martin Warner, a veteran entrepreneur and the author of “The Startup Story: An Entrepreneur’s Journey from Idea to Exit,” told me. Warner cofounded his first company, botObjects, a 3D-printing-software and -hardware manufacturer, in 2013 before going on to found two other companies in 2015.

It used to be that your identity came second and the thing you were developing came first. But now, many say that they need to have an identity before they even start.
Bernhard Schroeder, director of the Lavin Entrepreneurship Center Programs at San Diego State University

“For me at the beginning, it was much more about putting the mechanics together,” Warner said. This included setting up an accounting system, nailing down a business model, and determining a talent-recruiting approach. Only then, he said, he could “focus on what was really important, and that was building a software product.”

The annual startup rate — which measures the share of all businesses that register in a year and go on to launch and hire — took a major hit during the Great Recession, declining from 10% in 2006 to less than 8% in 2009, according to the US Census Bureau’s Business Dynamics Statistics. The rate hovered around 8.5% in the 2010s. The problem wasn’t that people weren’t interested in starting a business: A 2016 EY study found that 62% of 18- to 34-year-olds had toyed with venturing into business ownership. But a significant hurdle stood in their way: 42% cited financial constraints as their main barrier. That shifted after the pandemic hit. The startup rate saw its greatest year-over-year jump in 2021, the most recent year we have data for, to 8.9%, and it’s bound to increase as the surge in new business applications translates into fully launched companies. A 2023 analysis of microbusinesses — businesses that are too small or new to show up in government statistics — by GoDaddy found that 61% of entrepreneurs under 40 had started their businesses in 2020 or later.

In the past 10 years, an abundance of software tools has hit the market that helps budding entrepreneurs streamline the boring administration stuff, allowing them to focus their time, attention, and finances on the big picture. That has made starting a business all the more appealing — and affordable — for prospective entrepreneurs.

“In my era, entrepreneurship was like a 1 percenter,” Schroeder, the San Diego State University professor, said. He started his first business in the 1990s. “Look at how many universities were teaching entrepreneurship courses in 1980 and how many universities are teaching entrepreneurship courses in 2024,” he said. “The numbers are insane: It was less than 100; now it’s almost 2,000.” (A 2013 study found that the number of entrepreneurship courses ballooned from about 250 in 1985 to more than 5,000 in 2008.)

Amid the economic shake-up of the past several years, more people are taking the plunge and starting businesses and side hustles that turn into main hustles. (Nearly two in five US adults have a side hustle, a 2023 Bankrate survey found.) And with the plethora of digital tools we have today, starting a business is more accessible than ever.

One of the most significant changes to entrepreneurship is the new emphasis on branding. Despite its impressive revenue in 2018, Lintz’s company overpurchased inventory and ended up $300,000 in debt the same year. To get out of it, he pivoted. He decided that he was better at building a brand than selling earbuds, so that fall, Lintz turned HighKey into a public-relations firm and slowly paid off the debt.

“Our original clientele grew from referrals,” he said. According to Lintz, now 24, HighKey was one of the first companies to use mass direct-message outreach on social media as a strategy to close clients, which now include Nicki Minaj, Kevin Hart, and Khloé Kardashian. “We were able to make $20 million in revenue strictly through the Instagram DMs, doing no sales calls,” Lintz said. (Business Insider confirmed that HighKey generated $20 million in revenue between 2020 and 2023).

The strategy worked because HighKey had already established a strong brand on Instagram. “The trust was there when we reached out to people. It was really just perfect,” Lintz said.

Older entrepreneurs often don’t understand how to use the tools available to get the organic traction they need to compete in today’s business landscape.

The concept of personal branding was introduced by Tom Peters in a 1997 cover story for Fast Company. “To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You,” Peters wrote. Today, whether you’re a seasoned professional or just starting your career, personal branding is a strategic necessity.

Lintz has over 1 million followers on his personal Instagram account, where he posts highlight reels of his travels and inspirational posts about his business journey. Building a cohesive following as an entrepreneur is how you get sales opportunities and remind people you exist, he said. “If you don’t have a personal brand out there,” Lintz added, “it becomes that much harder to build that trustworthiness and credibility.”

“It used to be that your identity came second and the thing you were developing came first,” Schroeder of San Diego State University said. But now, many say that “they need to have an identity before they even start, and then maybe people will believe in my identity even though I haven’t proposed anything yet,” he added.

Nowhere is this concept clearer than in the rise of the $250 billion creator economy. With social-media platforms and content-creation tools, establishing a personal brand is a business. As soon as you start producing content that attracts a following, you can attract brand partnerships, sponsored content, and merchandise sales. Increasingly, entrepreneurs are turning themselves into the product.

One generation is uniquely set up to succeed. Since Gen Zers have grown up online, they’re naturally more adept at navigating the new landscape. In a survey conducted by ZenBusiness in 2023, 78% of Gen Z respondents said being an entrepreneur was the most accessible job, and 69% said they learned about business through self-directed research and online videos. One in three Gen Zers said in a 2023 Instagram survey that the best way to get ahead financially was through “some form of self-employment.”

Schroeder said he’d seen a lot of people in their late 30s and early 40s who wanted to start a company but struggled with the breakneck pace of technological innovation. “The good news is their experience,” he said. “The not-so-good news is they’re not digitally native.” The older entrepreneurs he speaks with often don’t understand how to use the tools available to get the organic traction they need to compete in today’s business landscape. “It’s a whole different ball game,” he said.

If the trend continues, Gen Z’s pursuit of entrepreneurship is poised to change the economic landscape. “The effect could be tremendous growth with new disruptor-type companies coming,” Schroeder said. “I also think Gen Z, long term, they’re going to be a kinder entrepreneur. I think they’ll be better about what they build, better about what they don’t waste, better about helping in their local community.” He added: “It won’t be money for money’s sake.”

Whether these bright-eyed and bushy-tailed entrepreneurs make it in the world of business remains to be seen: 30% of new businesses fail within two years, and half don’t last past five years, according to the Small Business Administration. But thanks to the tools at our fingertips, more people can give their ideas a shot. “There’s a ton more saturation,” Warner said. “But the young kids won’t see it that way.”

Eve Upton-Clark is a features writer covering culture and society.

Correction: March 29, 2024 — An earlier version of this story misstated Bernhard Schroeder’s current title. He is a lecturer for the Fowler College of Business. He left his role as director of the Lavin Entrepreneurship Center Programs in 2022.