Adolescence. Woah. What a gross time.

Sure, those in-between years offer some nostalgic moments; dancing to SClub7 on a Saturday night in a disco-ball-lit garage 15th birthday in Park Orchards, the camaraderie of school plays and Stoli-laden afterparties, long bus trips with mates listening to Nirvana’s MTV special, poring over Dolly magazine.

Then there are the yech moments. The school camp fails, the embarrassing crushes, the bindi-wearing, polyester Dangerfield flare-wearing festival moments, and the riskier-than-you-knew roadtrips away or schoolies holidays (to revisit those good ol’ days, here’s a recipe for Fruit Tingles).

My Uncle recently sent me this most excellent photo of myself and my Dad, probably in 1996 or early 1997. My Dad’s pretty cool: he’s got a Zapata moustache and looks young and kind of spicy. I am literally bubbling with teen angst, my expression a mixture of attitude paired with the smug knowledge that I’m still young and buffered from life’s vagaries by my parents. It’s a fabulous image. I can really see the child cushioned inside the growing adult.

This image got me to thinking about the many kinds of adolescence we traverse through in life. There’s the OG – the awkward, sometimes rude, often-emotional actual teen years of fighting the man, (or the parents) and trying our darndest to do all the things we think we’ve got the bandwith and smarts for. Given the chance, we’re newbies at lots of things in life – including business ownership. Now I’m 12 years into being at the helm of my own venture, I think it is fair to say that entrepreneurship also presents its own ugly adolescent years. Here’s how they might look – and how to go about making them a little bit less regret-sy.

  • The Dunning-Kruger Effect

Just last week I was interviewing a ripper crypto-lawyer about the Dunning-Kruger effect. If you think you’re impacted by it … you’re definitely in the teenage dirtbag stage of business ownership. Not sure about the D-K effect? (It is not related to Donkey Kong, in case you’re wondering.) In short, it is a cognitive bias that people with low ability at a task overestimate their competence, whilst people with high ability at a task underestimate their ability. It’s kind of like Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘known unknowns’:

When you’re a biz-teen, you’ve got enough knowledge (theoretical or practical) to understand the basic lie of the land. What you don’t tend to have is true context, or deep observation of theory in practice – both of which are protective factors that prevent us from f*cking up, big time. It’s a bit like thinking that the hot mid-twenty year old dude who is interested in you is mature for having good taste, rather than realising he’s a creep for hitting on a 16 year old. Y’know? You’ve got a leeeetle bit of knowledge … but no context.

Whilst we can’t know what we don’t know *ahem*, one way we can protect our businesses during their adolescence is by being deliberate around decision-making and commitments (particularly involving contracts, either with suppliers or clients). Teenage businesses tend to have enough in their kitty to look to an accountant or lawyer for good advice; it is best to begin gathering a crew of experts to support your practice to reduce the impact of your potential naievete.

  • Quick Money, Poor Clients

Another sign of business teenager-hood is a glut of clients who aren’t a great fit. At best, they can be moved on by acknowledging the two of you aren’t ideal working partners. At worst, they’re litigious and can cost you in time away from your business due to split focus, and in legal fees.

Once you have a few runs on the board, you’ll find new business enquiries come in with a little more regularity. You are likely tempted to take everyone on, delighted at their lack of deep questioning during the onboarding process. “How brilliant!” you think. “My reputation precedes me! They don’t even want to know about costs, and they’ve send back the contract immediately!” Hold your horses, kid.

Clients who come on ‘too easily’ can be some of the most dangerous. This is something that my very first boss in real estate told me, and it rings true in any profession. There are two profiles of potential clients that hoist up my proverbial red flag; those who are too eager to begin and ask too few considered questions, and those who ask EVERY SINGLE QUESTION and want you to make promises about outcomes that are unreasonable in one way or another. The ‘easy’ client is typically fun to onboard, but one runs into problems with them almost immediately as the groundwork of rapport, trust and fair expectation has not been undertaken. If they do not understand your offering or the way your business functions, they are unlikely to be satisfied by your service. It’s worth slowing things down and putting a few more roadblocks in the way of overly-enthusiastic newbie clients to make sure you’re on the page, avoiding mis-matches and potential hostility further down the line.

  • Financial Over-Commitment 

Man, it feels sweet to finally have some consistency in one’s business! To not feel like you’re living from invoice to invoice, and to be able to enjoy the odd bunch of flowers and regular BAS payment. Living the dream. And just like a teenager with their first job at Maccas, it’s not unusual to go out and blow your whole paycheck on Christina Aguilera CDs and tube-tops from Ice Design at Eastland. Except in the case of a business tween, that expenditure might look like an unnecessary office space in a costly commercial building, an overinvestment in bespoke technology that your business might not be mature enough for, or the lease of a fancy corporate vehicle you might not need. If you find your new riches are dwindling, you may need to unwind a contract or two and cop a break fee. The good thing is; you can lighten your burdens, remove your rose-tinted glasses and get real with where you should really put money in your business. (Hint: it’s probably in marketing and talent.)

If you’re a business tween, I invite you to delight in your butterfly hairclips and polyester trousers. Your Ricky Martin and your frosted lip gloss. Having some knowledge – but not enough to make truly informed decisions in fashion or in life – is the only way we can learn and grow. Look for signs of overstretching, or active minimising of risk on your behalf. Stay close to those who have your interests at heart, and have seen a little more of business life. And if you make a mistake? Well, good on you. If you’re not making any mistakes, you’re probably not growing and learning. And as you’ll probably recall… that’s the only way to get through your teenage dirtbag years.