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Business

LI millennials talk about the joys and challenges of launching a business 

High housing costs and students loans hold many back, but these young entrepreneurs are making a go of it.

Ubaid U. Bandukra, the 30-year-old owner of Caffeine,

Ubaid U. Bandukra, the 30-year-old owner of Caffeine, a coffee shop in Oceanside on April 3. Photo Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Jillian Weston started her online marketing company in 2013 when she was just 23.

At the time, she recalls going to networking meetings and often seeing only older entrepreneurs.

“It was sort of a lonely experience,” said Weston, whose firm, Jillian’s Circus, is based in Oceanside. “When you go to traditional meetings, there’s not a lot of younger people there.”

So she started her own millennial business group, The Unicorn Network, in 2016.

“I wanted to hang out with people in the same position as me and support each other and help each other grow,” said Weston, now 30.

The group started with about 10 members and now includes more than 350 millennial entrepreneurs between two chapters in Long Island and Manhattan.

Statewide, there were 21,198 firms owned by 25- to 34-year-olds in 2016, up slightly from 21,188 in 2015, according to the latest Census figures.

While launching a business always presents challenges, young Long Islanders face two extra hurdles: the high cost of housing and high college debt.

Local millennials — defined as those born between 1981 and 1996 by the Pew Research Center — are not forming new households at the rate their age group did in prior decades, according to an August report by the Long Island Association business group. In 1970, 86.4 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds on Long Island were heads of their own household (either renters or owners living independently). By 2016, that number had dropped to 36.5 percent, the report found.

That could hinder business startups considering many entrepreneurs borrow against their homes, said Matt Cohen, vice president of government affairs at the LIA.

Many millennials said they have to rely on personal savings, help from friends and family and credit cards. 

In addition, the younger generation is battling high debt loads out of college, Cohen said.

The estimated average student loan balance for students on Long Island was $35,140 for 2018, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Federal direct student loans average about 5 percent interest for 10-year terms, which results in monthly payments of approximately $372. Payments can vary depending on the type of repayment plan.

But in general this type of debt load can make it difficult to start a business, Cohen said.

Weston said she was lucky in that she didn’t carry debt out of college and that helped in being able to launch her business.

“I was very blessed,” she said.

Ubaid U. Bandukra, 30, owner of Caffeine, a coffee shop in Oceanside, and a member of The Unicorn Network, also cited the lack of student loan debt as a major boost.

“I was lucky enough not to have college debt,” he said. “If I had … all of my savings would have gone to repay it.”

While college loans make it harder to be an entrepreneur, they don't make it impossible. 

Lindsay Plotkin, 24, co-owner of Syosset-based LD Decor & Design, an interior design and real estate staging firm, graduated from Molloy College in 2016 with about $30,000 in debt.

She works full time as an administrative assistant for a company that provides phone systems to businesses, which helps her pay down the college loans, and spends 25 to 30 hours a week co-running her business. 

She met her co-owner and business partner, Danielle Riggio, through The Unicorn Network, noting the group has “really inspired me.”

Beyond the financial considerations, launching a business requires risk tolerance. That's something many would think comes easier for younger entrepreneurs, but that’s not always the case.

Jason Dorsey, president of the Center for Generational Kinetics, an Austin,Texas-based millennial and Gen Z research firm, said millennials often say they want to start their own businesses, but are “more risk averse than other generations.”

That's because millennials on the older end of the spectrum entered adulthood around the time of the Great Recession, he said, noting many struggled with unemployment or underemployment.

“It was a very jarring experience,” Dorsey said. “It made them sensitive to taking risk.”

Bandukra said having a father who started his own convenience store business "gave me the courage to do the same." 

Even with his father as a mentor, starting a business is “a lot of hard work without any recognition,” he said.

But there are upsides for young entrepreneurs as well.

It can be argued that younger people — often with fewer life commitments — are better positioned to take the entrepreneurial leap than older people with mortgages and children to support.

Also making it somewhat easier today is technology, which has allowed businesses to operate virtually anywhere and reach a much broader audience. 

“Millennials are definitely more comfortable with the newer technologies than previous generations because it’s all they’ve known,” said Dorsey. In addition they have more diverse lending options with access to nontraditional capital such as online crowdfunding and microlending for smaller loans, he said.

Still, to be successful, they have to do their due diligence as would any entrepreneur, said Aaron Foss, founder of Mount Sinai-based Nomorobo, a robocall blocking service and an entrepreneur-in-residence at Hofstra University in Hempstead assisting students with their business ideas.

Key basic business principles apply, such as doing your market research, making sure you’re solving a real problem and making sure you have enough finances to cover the lean times, he said.

When starting off, regardless of age, you should have enough capital to cover 18 months of personal and business expenses, Foss said.

“That should give you enough runway to have a shot at making it work,” he said, noting it also pays to find mentors and people to help you along the way.

“The best team might be a good mix of older entrepreneurs and millennial entrepreneurs,” he said, because they each bring a different perspective.

To be sure, there are business groups for entrepreneurs both young and old, as well as for millennial professionals. For instance, the Long Island Association has a young professionals committee made up of about 40 people roughly aged 22-35 that meets every four to six weeks to discuss issues relevant to them, Cohen said.

Beyond networking, getting your psyche ready before leaping into entrepreneurship is important and that means being willing to take chances.

“Where there’s risk there’s a ton of reward,” said Marcus Damas, 29, founder of Fueled by Culture, a creative marketing agency that in January relocated its headquarters from Bay Shore to Manhattan. “If you’re too comfortable you’re not growing and your company is not growing.”

Damas, who played professional basketball in Sweden for two seasons, decided to take the leap in early 2017.

He said it’s hard work, but he has no regrets.

“I think it’s the best thing I did,” he said. “It’s a great time to be an entrepreneur.”

Marcus Damas

Age: 29

Business: Fueled by Culture, Manhattan

Founded: 2017

Initial investment: $450 

Employees: 10

Damas, a Bay Shore native, played professional basketball in Sweden for the Solna Vikings for two seasons before starting Fueled by Culture, a creative marketing agency that connects talent with brands for events and cross-promotions, in January 2017. When he was playing ball, he felt he wanted more control over his own destiny. That opportunity came when his agent connected him with the video game maker EA Sports to provide motions for its NBA Live  game -- real players are filmed shooting and dunking so the moves can be emulated by players in the animated game. He gave EA Sports executives advice on marketing strategies to reach their target consumer and connected them with other players, and the company became his first client, he said. “It really came about naturally,” said Damas, who wanted more financial stability with a son on the way at the time. He started the business from his in-laws' home in Bay Shore with minimal initial investment and has bootstrapped its growth over time, investing some $200,000 back into the company. Fueled by Culture has been growing by triple digits, he said. At the beginning of this year, he moved the company headquarters from Bay Shore to Manhattan, tripling his space. “There’s a lot more opportunity there,” said Damas, who said having a Manhattan office helps him connect easily with clients and partners. Like many millennials, he said he has a greater purpose than just making money. “I definitely want to leave a legacy;" he said, to leave a mark in his industry and "a name that my children can be proud of." 

Brittney Borruso

Age: 31

Business: Borruso Law P.C., Long Beach

Founded: 2015

Initial investment: Just under $2,000, from personal savings

Employees: None

Borruso always wanted to open her own business. She grew up with her Dad owning his own business,  a woodworking shop that's been in the family for three generations.  She went to Cardozo Law School in Manhattan on a full academic scholarship after leaving college with no loans. After law school, she worked part time for a Long Island attorney but started her own law firm in 2015 with a focus on real estate and small business. She got her first clients through "a ton of networking" at events and networking groups," she said. Jillian Weston, founder of The Unicorn Network, was her first client; they met in another networking group. Borruso rents office space and operates with no support staff for now; she said her business has doubled each year. She said she loves being a business owner, but notes that being both a younger entrepreneur and female comes with the challenge of sometimes not getting the same respect as her older counterparts. “Sometimes I have to prove my knowledge more than someone else would, but I’m willing to go above and beyond to do that,” she said. She was one of the first members of The Unicorn Network and said she has found support there as well as "a significant number of clients and referrals." “All of us were younger and just building our connections,” says Borruso. “This was a good group to make those connections and do business with these people for the long-term.” 

Ubaid U. Bandukra

Age: 30

Business: Caffeine, Oceanside

Founded: 2015

Initial investment: $90,000-plus (from personal savings and credit cards)

Employees: 4

Bandukra had an entrepreneur as a role model growing up so it wasn’t a leap for him to start his own business, he said. His dad, Usman, had owned convenience stores for about four decades. Bandkura graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in operations management in 2009. He worked at consumer goods giant Unilever as a supply chain analyst in their tea division and at a real estate office doing property management.  He always had a passion for coffee and when he found available space next to the Oceanside LIRR station in a building his dad managed, he saw a perfect opportunity to open the business there in 2015. “I’m 20 feet from the Oceanside train platform,” said Bandukra, who kept his real estate job part-time for two years while he built the business. He used his savings to fund the business and used credit cards for 12 to 18 months to finance equipment. “It was risky and if I didn’t have the location I had, I may not have been able to survive,” said Bandukra. In the early days he worked at least 40 hours a week at the coffee shop plus 30 hours at the real estate job. The business is now profitable, he said. While he enjoys being an entrepreneur, he said it’s not for the faint of heart. “Millennials sometimes get a bad rap for being lazy, but I think that’s a misconception,” he said. “I wouldn’t recommend it, though, to someone who isn’t willing to put the sweat equity in.” 

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