25-Year-Old CEO: How I Make My Age Work to My Advantage

Last Updated Jul 27, 2010 1:26 PM EDT

By Daniella Julia Cuomo, Founder of Virtual Assist USA, Pittsburgh
I was just 23 when I decided to start a virtual-assistant company. I had an MBA and two years in the workforce. I didn't have a ton of experience, but it had been my long-time goal to be a business owner, and soon after I graduated from business school, I was ready start one.

After I opened shop, I immediately ran into a problem I had not foreseen: my age. I had a really hard time convincing my employees to have faith in my leadership, and my business partners to take me seriously. My relative youth and limited experience made them doubt my ability to make this company work. I realized I was going to have to fight to earn the trust of my employees and the respect of my clients.
Startup capital: $400
When I got laid off from my first job at an IT company in 2007, I thought it was perfect timing to start a virtual-assistant company. The economy was starting to tank. I figured that companies with increasingly smaller staffs would need more help with back-office tasks and self-employed professionals would need to outsource things like marketing, PR, and Web design work. Virtual Assist USA could fill that niche.

I guess you could say that I didn't do things the way an older, more experienced CEO would -- I couldn't afford to. I had school loans to pay and next to no startup capital. When it came to networking, conferences seemed like a good idea but I couldn't pay the fees to attend. Instead, I volunteered to help to set them up or take them down in exchange for free attendance. I couldn't afford business cards either, so I wrote my contact info on the back of napkins. (That definitely raised some eyebrows.) To build the company Web site, I went to the library, checked out a bunch of books, and learned how to do it myself. I used my savings of $400 to buy a cheap laptop.

After I set up my business, I knew that I had to make money, and fast. Fortunately, when Virtual Assist USA arrived on the scene, there was already a big demand for virtual assistants. I focused on getting good search engine optimization for my website so when companies searched for "virtual assistants", we popped up right away. I also did intense in-person networking at conferences I attended. Once I landed my first few clients, and did a good job with them, I got more work through referrals. It wasn't long before I could afford to start hiring staff.

Trying to be the boss
I not only am young -- I look young. When I started the business, my youngest employee was 12 years older than me, and most staffers had more experience in the workforce than I did. They were skeptical of my ability to run a company. Many of them weren't willing to develop a working relationship with me -- they kept at a distance, which I knew would hinder teamwork and hurt business in the long run.

I was getting clients, but quite often being taken advantage of because of my age. In the beginning, clients would try to nickel-and-dime me on my prices, thinking I wasn't savvy enough to know the difference. None of this got me down. I am a competitive person, and used it as an opportunity to work harder and to prove myself to the doubters.

How I earned some respect
I knew if I wanted to prove myself, I would have to constantly learn on the job and improve my skills as a business leader. One thing I do is simply to emulate other successful CEOs. For example, Kelly Cutrone of People's Revolution, a fashion PR firm in New York, is notoriously tough -- a "take-no-prisoners" kind of girl. I try to bring that toughness to my business dealings. Now, when it comes to interviews, it's not just the client interviewing us, it's me interviewing the potential client. I tell them we are looking for clients who delegate and communicate, and are willing to try out new ideas.

At this point, I am able to be selective about who I work with and cherry pick the best clients. I am less afraid to turn away business owners who aren't suited for a virtual assistant. And I am never afraid to ask questions of business leaders I admire: I ask about how they arrive at their pricing strategy, retain clients, and manage difficult employees.

With my staff, I make sure my comments and critiques of their work are always specific and demonstrate my knowledge of the material. I don't like to see that an employee has made the same mistake twice, and if someone isn't working out I let him or her go. I also delegate a lot, which helps give employees more autonomy and fulfillment in their roles.

What has most helped me earn the trust and respect of my employees is that our business has continued to grow, even through the economic downturn. We analyze our marketing activities, identify which strategies worked best and focus on developing those. Thanks to this kind of diligence and focus, we were able to weather the storm. And by delivering what I call "Positively Outrageous Service" to my clients, I continue to get great feedback and referrals. The people who work for me, unlike a lot of their peers, still have jobs. Recently, one of my employees -- a 40-year-old woman with a family -- told me how impressed she has been with the way I work, and how much she has learned from me. That was a turning point.

Turning youth into a competitive advantage
I never hide my age. Even though people sometimes see it as a drawback, it's also what separates me from the competition. Recently I met with executives from a company looking to outsource its marketing campaign. I showed up in a conference room filled with older men in suits. I was dressed relatively casually, with my hair down. My youthful style helped me make the case that my company was the fresh and innovative choice, and in particular, would use social media -- Facebook, MySpace, Twitter -- more effectively than the competition. Virtual Assist USA got the job not in spite of my youth, but in part because of it.

Running a company at such a young age is tough, but the rewards are many. We're profitable. We serve clients in almost every industry, from consumer goods to energy to health care. Since 2007, we have grown from four employees to 22. And I'm still only 25-- I look forward to watching my company grow long into the future.

Virtual Assist USA serves business customers in the United States, Australia, England, Israel and Canada.
-- As told to Harper Willis