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When Edelman, one of the nation's largest PR firms, was looking to reach a younger audience for one of their clients, Axe deodorant, they turned to an up-and-coming brand agency that touted an intimate understanding of this younger generation (often referred to as Generation Z) to be part of the solution. What helped JÜV Consulting land such a coveted client? Everyone who works for JÜV happens to be part of Gen Z.
In the two years since launching, JÜV has gone on to work with other established brands, including Viacom, but also startups like the men’s beauty site Very Good Light. Perhaps equally important has been JÜV's ability to leverage youth not just as their expertise but as the kind of business success story people love to read about. Bloomberg Businessweek, the BBC, Forbes and, most recently, the New York Times have all profiled the young agency.
"We’re trying to provide brands, companies and nonprofits with a better understanding of who Generation Z is and, in doing so, help them understand better how they can appeal to us," said Nick Jain, a 19-year-old sophomore at Princeton University, and the co-founder and COO of JÜV. "At the root of that is trying to push the message that Generation Z not only deserves a seat at the table, but it must be at the table."
We spoke with Jain to learn more about how he and his team bootstrapped their company during their freshman year in college.
What gave you and your partners the idea for JÜV?
"About three years ago, Ziad [Ziad Ahmed, a sophomore at Yale], Melinda [Melinda Guo, a sophomore at Stanford] and I enrolled in a summer program [the Business World Program] at Cornell University. Throughout that program we started talking about the fact that each of us had been in situations where we were the only teenager in the room, and lot of times the conversations in those rooms were about teenagers. For example, Ziad has been to a couple events at the White House. He would join in conversations where people would be talking about legislation to target young people—whether that be reducing discrimination in the classroom or creating more inclusive spaces—and he began to wonder: 'If I had been sick today, there would have been zero young people in this room giving their perspective on this policy that is being created. How can the policy really represent teenagers if teenagers aren’t involved with crafting it?'
"Along the way we started noticing, through social media and other platforms, a lot of brands were doing a terrible job of advertising to Generation Z. When they were posting an ad on Instagram, we knew that the target audience was young people; we also knew that we would just scroll past it, because it evidently stuck out in our feed in a way that made us know that it was an ad.
"Brands were talking a lot about teenagers, but they weren’t talking to us."
"Putting these two ideas together, we realized that what brands are doing now is hiring middlemen—PR firms, marketing agencies—who are then doing extensive research on Generation Z, using focus groups and trying to gather this information. The problem is that by the time the information is gathered, a lot of the trends that were initially observed in the research are obsolete. So these brands are taking trends that aren’t really popular anymore and using them to create ads, and they're not doing a great job of appealing to us or understanding us. That was the idea that launched us. Not only were we able to recognize that problem, but we were able to recognize why that problem existed: Brands were talking a lot about teenagers, but they weren’t talking to us."
How long did it take to turn that idea into an actual business?
"To really become the company that we are today took about two years—not only to get our foot in the door with clients, but also to go through trial and error periods to find the operating strategy that made the most sense for us. There’s a lot that happens in the beginning in terms of what your vision is, what your strategy is going to be. Brands aren’t likely to take a bunch of 10th graders seriously if we walk into a room and say, 'Pay us to tell you about Generation Z.' We needed to gain legitimacy.
"After a while we did find a few small clients, and as we grew and had some work that we could stand behind, different press organizations like Bloomberg Businessweek wrote pieces on us. That definitely helped."
What’s the age range of your team?
"Our team ranges from 14 to 22. Generation Z extends younger than 14, but legally we can’t hire anyone that’s under 14."
How have clients responded when they see that’s the age range they’re dealing with?
"There’s definitely a little bit of initial skepticism, an initial worry about how much we can actually help their brand.
"But then, after we start working, they see the passion in the way our consultants go about projects and their critical thinking skills. That often changes things dramatically. We’ve had a lot of clients come to us, after our first couple of meetings, and say, 'When we started this, we were worried that this wasn’t going to work out… Not only was this a great use of our money, but we also don’t want to make any more decisions without checking with you first when it comes to Generation Z.' I think that raises a testament to who we are.
[For] the first couple of years that we were running this business, brands were still trying to concentrate on Millennials. [Now they’re] starting to realize that Generation Z is up-and-coming, and it does have buying power and will occupy a huge share of the market space. And as they start to focus on us, our voices are amplified a lot more. When they come and work with us, they’re a lot more open to taking a chance on us; and we hope that it always pays off."
What gives you the confidence to go into a room and tell a person who's much further into their career what they should be doing?
"I remember our first meeting—I was so nervous. Why would anybody want to listen to me?
"But over time, the thing that gave me the most confidence was when we were telling clients about key elements of Generation Z and key ways that Generation Z spends their time, and they’d never heard of what we were talking about.
"We gave this speech to a big brand about a year into JÜV, and part of our speech was about finstas, which are fake Instagrams. [Teens use finstas as secondary accounts, to gain more privacy and to relieve the social pressures they feel when posting on their main accounts.] There were, like, 30 people in the room, and when we mentioned finstas and described what they were, at least half of them—their mouths dropped open because they’d never heard of them. There are a lot of things that we spend our time on that they wish they knew about, but they just don’t.
"Having that realization—that we’re not only going in and pitching our services, but we’re really bringing something that they don’t know yet—that gave me a lot of confidence to believe that we hold the value that we do. And since then, I’ve used that to carry through to all the other meetings that I’ve gone through with clients."
Aside from the skepticism about your age, were there any other challenges you faced when starting out?
"The first one was engagement. As we were starting out, we began to build a team, but we didn’t always have clients. We struggled with how to give [team members] more work—what they should be doing when they weren’t with a client. Now we have a steady flow of clients, and I think we’ve gotten into a good rhythm, but it took a little while to do so.
"And then the second major issue, which is something we’re working on today, is that we fundamentally don’t believe that Generation Z is a monolith. I would never call myself a Generation Z expert, because I know that what appeals to somebody with a completely different race, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation—their experience is completely different than mine, and what appeals to them is going to be different from me. And so we try to create our teams with a great diversity of experience and of background.
"Even amongst the diversity that we’ve been able to create—the fact that we have people of all races, all gender identities and sexual orientations, from over 30 states throughout America and over 30 countries—we still found that there are voices missing. Primarily that has to do with privilege. The people who have the capacity to join our team are the people who have the ability to know about it. But a lot of people who are from underprivileged, underserved areas—it’s hard for them to even find out that we exist, much less be able to get involved. We realized that that’s a problem, because if we’re marketing that we're able to represent Generation Z, how can we do that if there are voices missing?
"We fundamentally don’t believe that Generation Z is a monolith."
"In the past four months, we’ve launched our social impact program. It is geared toward setting up partnerships with nonprofits and schools in underserved and underprivileged areas to work with the teens in those organizations. One is called Exalt. They work with formerly incarcerated teens and teens that have been affected by incarceration. Our social impact team leads workshops with them. We teach them about what we’re doing, we teach them about public speaking, we do critical thinking drills and we get to a point where they’re practicing the skills that we use on a daily basis. And then after they’ve gone through that practice and developed those skills, we give them the opportunity to interview and then be placed on our team. In doing so we hope to not only empower voices that have been systematically disenfranchised, but also to broaden the scope of the voices that we have on our team representing Generation Z."
What kind of funding did you secure? Did you have seed funding?
"We did not pursue seed funding. To this day, we’ve been able to fund ourselves with the revenue that we have brought in. There were definitely times when it felt like it would be easier if we pursued funding, and we have people who were interested in pursuing investment, but it’s been valuable to be working off the money that we’ve earned.
"I’m not saying that we’re not open to funding in the future; that’s one of the routes that we might go down. But we’ve been able to sustain ourselves and make profit based on the contracts that we‘ve worked with."
How long did it take you to become profitable?
"My guess is six months. It probably took us about six months to get through all the legal paperwork, to get our accounts set up, to get our team ready before we worked on our first client. After probably our second client, we made back the amount that we spent, because the initial costs of starting the business were very minimal. But it took a bit of time because we had to get ourselves to that point first."
What are you doing with the revenue?
"Obviously, we use it to pay our team who is working with the project and our executive team, who is working on the brand. Ziad and I are shareholders, but we have not pocketed any money from JÜV. We typically use the money to put it back into the business to be able to pursue more projects and also to build out our team further, because we think that makes us a lot more efficient. So far we’ve been right about that."
How many of you were involved during those first six months?
"At first it was just me, Ziad and Melinda. At the beginning we brought on a few more people to work more at a high level with us, some of whom are still majorly involved today. But it was basically just a few of us, and then we started building out our consultancy practice. By the end of the first year we had about 40 consultants. Probably 8 or 9 months in, we started developing the idea for the Vine.”
Tell me about the Vine. How does that work within the company?
"JÜV is sectioned off into three teams. We have our executive team, which deals with our internal brand and also managing finance, technology—all those aspects of our company that are really important just to keep it sustainable and keep us moving forward. Then we have our consultancy team, which is broken down into five senior partners, 15 junior partners and 90 consultants. These are the people that work directly with our clients.
"Our last section is our Vine, our collection of Generation Z throughout the world that we can tap into to get feedback and information. If we have a consultancy team working on a project with a client, and they come up with an idea for a client’s campaign, we might send the idea out to the Vine, so we can say, this isn’t just an idea that eight people came up with. This is also reinforced by hundreds of kids who agreed with us that this would be a great way for you to move forward with this campaign.
"The Vine is over 500 kids from over 30 countries right now, but it’s growing at a rapid rate. We’re starting to push out the Vine to strategically grow into different countries and states where we’re underrepresented in terms of geography."
What’s the most fun you’ve ever had in the office?
"This summer we had an executive team living and working out of Brooklyn, N.Y. There were eight of us who lived there full time. We had a lot of fun—we’d take breaks to watch the World Cup and the Bachelorette. We had this inflatable beach ball with us, and we set up chairs halfway across the apartment, and we basically played tennis with our feet, me and our Director of Experiences, Itai. We played this for two hours after work one day.
"Make sure that what you’re doing is something that you’re passionate about."
What advice would you give to other students interested in starting a side business?
"Make sure that what you’re doing is something that you’re passionate about. There will be times when it gets hard, and there will be times that you think it’s not worth it, or it’s too much effort, or it won’t ever pan out. But if you’re doing something you’re passionate about, that passion grounds you in the fact that the work you’re doing is not just something that could be successful, but something that is important. When you have that mindset, it’s a lot harder to give up."
This article, " Meet the Teens Who Help Brands Reach Generation Z ," originally appeared on ValuePenguin .