I started my company two years ago. Back then, “headquarters” was in my basement and “staff” consisted of any friends or family I could persuade to work with me on the weekends. Back then, I was 21. Now my business has grown to a staff of three, an extensive client list and an impeccable reputation … so why is it that I'm still always worried about anyone in this industry finding out I'm only 23?
In the beginning, naivete was key. I was foolish enough to call and sheepishly ask other planners and vendors for help. To me it was like the first day of high school — if you didn't know where the cafeteria was, you just asked one of the seniors. Who's your favorite caterer? What's the best place to hold a cocktail party? Where'd you get those gorgeous votives? Sadly, the responses to most of my inquiries produced the same sense of low self-esteem that I experienced in my high school years. It was difficult to find anyone who wanted to help out the new kid. Add to it that I was visibly so much younger than many of my peers, and there was always a rush to make a snap judgment about my capabilities.
I believe that when we approach many things in life, we often turn to the defense mechanism of passing judgments based on stereotypes. I can walk prospective clients through my company's beautiful portfolio, they can book us and be in love with our work and designs, but if I let it slip that I'm younger than they are, suddenly, they're nervous. What if she can't handle it? What if her experience isn't enough? What if she wants to plan our wedding but decides to go on spring break instead? After all, isn't that what all 23-year-olds do?
I will say, I have found a way to combat this type of fear in clients — I lie. Twenty-six seems to be a pretty good age — young enough to be trendy, old enough to have gotten past all those wild years, right? I know it sounds ridiculous and drastic, but so is the alternative. So, I just keep telling them that story, and I figure eventually I'll catch up to it. Who knows, maybe once I reach that age, I'll wish I were younger and claim I'm 21.
The truth as I know it is this: While I don't have the experience of some of the 10- and 20-year veterans, I have (and I imagine my other young colleagues do as well) attributes that make up some of the difference. Being this age means I constantly have to prove myself and work harder to ensure a flawless reputation. Being this age means I'm tapped into what's new and fresh; I'm constantly looking for an innovative and singular way to redesign something you've seen a million times before. Being this age means I'm excited to be here. I haven't done 600 events yet; my ideas are still flexible, and I work hard to plan the event to fulfill my client's vision, not my own.
What I wouldn't give, though, for a little of the perspective that my seasoned contemporaries have! I imagine having more years in the business means you have a wealth of experience to draw from. Being their age means that you don't get frazzled or sweat the small stuff because you know it all turns out well in the end. Being their age means you've done 600 events, so you're prepared for whatever the day throws at you. Being their age means you've learned that there's no such thing as a mistake, only lessons for next time.
As it is, we all had to work incredibly hard to carve out our niche in this market. We all had to learn how to get clients and how to keep them. We all had to learn how to manage a staff, fill out an invoice, and work 60 hours a week just to keep up. We all had to learn that respect isn't guaranteed, forced or bought; it's earned. So I challenge you to open yourself up to the possibility that your “competitors,” or those vendors who aren't yet on your “preferred” list, might be amazing allies regardless of their intimidating experience level — or shocking lack thereof.
MIX IT UP
Imagine though, the power that a combination of generations would have. Despite the wealth of information, experience, perspective, exuberance and community in the event industry, there is no attempt to capitalize on natural synergies. A new mind-set would make for a stronger, healthier industry with an infinite number of resources, friends and shoulders to cry on when the client asks for a revised design proposal for the eighth time. It would remind those veterans what it felt like in the beginning and give my generation exemplars to aspire to. Maybe this utopian community is a dream, and my young hopes are just that.
It suddenly strikes me, though, that at my age, I am still idealistic to the degree that to me, it's not “just a business.” The adventure is still there, and the energy that I feel from the daily sense of discovery is still tangible. I know that in the end, the bottom line has to be black and that competition and the struggle for the top will always be pressing.
When my father, a Ph.D. in business management, heard about the point I planned to make in this article, he told me that other event professionals “will never buy it; any good businessman knows that you never help your competition.” I imagine that there are a great many planners, caterers, florists, etc., who feel the same way, which I suppose is why it's good to have a 23-year-old around, to remind you that once upon a time, you were young and idealistic too!
Rachel Hollis heads Chic Events, based in Glendale, Calif. She can be reached at 818/545-0065; www.chicevent.com.