Business partners Clarence Wooten, 24, and Andre Forde, 26, understand the importance of first impressions. So when they meet with prospective clients, they sometimes use a secret weapon -- an older employee.
"We sometimes take in a little gray hair with us," says Mr. Wooten, a Johns Hopkins University junior who heads a Catonsville multimedia company. "People don't want to write checks when they know you are under 30."
As more and more college graduates confront a tight job market, many students -- like Mr. Wooten -- are using their school days not to party, but to start businesses. Relying on youthful enthusiasm and a willingness to take risks, college-age entrepreneurs are earning while they're learning.
About 272,000 20- to 24-year-olds were self-employed across the nation last year -- a 10 percent increase over the previous year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And a recent study by a Babson College professor indicated that 3.3 percent of Americans age 18 to 24 are trying to start a business.
Mr. Wooten, a self-described computer junkie, became interested in computer animation several years ago. He found a soul mate in Mr. Forde, who graduated from Morgan State University in 1991 with a degree in telecommunications and a strong interest in graphic design. They formed Metamorphosis Studios in 1993, when Mr. Wooten was an undergraduate at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
The company, which develops interactive multimedia programs and sets up Internet sites for companies, counts Fortune 500 companies such as Marriott Corp. and Procter & Gamble Co. as clients.
"We were both working as consultants for other companies before," Mr. Wooten says. "We wanted to take full advantage of our creative talents and reap the benefits."
But a traditional college schedule with day classes was too consuming for Mr. Wooten, who, as company CEO and creative director, puts in long hours. So he transferred to Hopkins' advanced business professionals program, a part-time curriculum that offers many evening courses, allowing him to split time between his studies and business.
"You want to finish school, but you go to school to get a job and I already have a job," he says. "This programs really helps because it's hard scheduling your meetings around classes."
Mr. Wooten has learned that the key to building a business at a young age is learning from others in the field and getting the company's name out. "I've found it's not what you know or even who you know. It's who . . . knows you."
College students show an increasing interest in starting companies, says James Schneider, 25, president of the Association of Collegiate Entrepreneurs.
"What they don't realize is how hard it is, how resilient they have to be," says Mr. Schneider, who three years ago ran his own computer consulting firm while a student at the University of Maryland College Park.
Now he works at the university's Michael D. Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship, which provides struggling entrepreneurs with information on topics such as networking, and links them with mentors. One of the toughest issues for young entrepreneurs, he says, is finding enough money to start a business.
Luke Golueke, 19, used a loan from his family and his own savings to launch a soccer-oriented business this year.
He also relied on the knowledge of his brother, Matt, 24, who opened Cranbrook Video in Timonium five years ago.
"A lot of the things he dealt with I'm dealing with now," says Luke Golueke, a business major at Harford Community College.
He and classmate Matt Rich, who is executive coordinator of Team First, apply what they learn to Team First Soccer Instruction, which organizes soccer camps and sponsors the Maryland 6 V 6 Champions Cup tournament.
It's not always easy being a businessperson and a young person -- sacrifices must be made for success, says Luke Golueke, who plays on his college soccer team. "You have your priorities. I enjoy it so much that it's not just work, it's fun."
He also disagrees with those who portray his age group as slackers.
"Every generation has its share of lazy people," he says. "Once clients start dealing with us they find out that we know our stuff."
Another Harford Community College student, Amanda Molnar, began making and selling dry flower arrangements, jewelry and baked goods at age 10.
At 19, she balances schoolwork, a business and a part-time job, and has made as much as $950 in one weekend selling merchandise.
Ms. Molnar says young entrepreneurs should "start small and not bite off more than you can chew." Hard work can lead to an established career -- at an age when many are still trying to figure out what job to pursue.
"It's important to make the money and reinvest it," she says. "I've got it planned so that by the time I am 25, I'll have my own store."