Lunch Money and Failing Fast: A 20-Year Old Entrepreneur Shares His Story

May 24, 2012: Interview with Brennan Zelener, Founder of Newaya Recycling, and College of Business undergraduate student. For more information about Newaya, watch this 1-minute video I caught of him after the interview, and be sure to check out

Brennan – you are a pretty impressive guy: You are 20 years old, a full time student with a major, minor, and certificate, an entrepreneur, and a community organizer.  Where did you get your zeal and determination?  When did it start?

It was a combination of having great mentors and getting to watch some of my peers start their own complex businesses.  I saw one friend launch a really impressive business and thought, “This is what’s possible if I just try something?” Some things worked and some things didn’t, but once I started trying different ideas, having great mentors helped me work on the tougher problems. I’ve had several superb mentors that really pushed me and let me pick their brains on anything. Much of the value from my CSU experience has been building mentorship connections from day one when I realized, “Wow, I would really love to study business.”

Is there a specific professor who has been mentoring you?

Dr. Yolanda Sarason was particularly helpful when I was about to pitch at SAGE*. She recruited several other professors to listen to my full presentation and give me feedback. They ripped it to shreds. And it was excellent – it was extremely helpful.

Yolanda also worked with me one-on-one to build a slide for the SAGE presentation about my financial data from 2011. That slide turned into a very valuable discussion piece during the Q&A after my pitch. At one point, a SAGE member asked about my expenses in 2011. I explained that some of them were marketing campaigns I had tried, some were eBay seller fees, stuff like that. But there was still about $1000 in expenses left that I hadn’t talked about. The SAGE team asked about it. So I got to share how I had found that professional businessmen seem to really enjoy being taken to lunch by a young entrepreneur, and that close to $1000 of my expenses were a year’s worth of restaurant bills from me taking people in the community out to lunch and picking their brains for mentorship, advice, and other connections. The SAGE group thought that was hilarious – in a good way.

Do you find yourself, when you’re in your business classes, being able to draw on some of your entrepreneurial experiences?

What I’ve really enjoyed is that in the start-up world, most of the focus is on execution. If you don’t execute, you don’t have a business. In the academic arena, more emphasis is often on planning. Planning is critical. It can save a lot of time and money by forcing one to look at the intricacies of what they are trying to do. I think that there is a valuable balance between planning and execution that you have to find. Both are important, but execution gets people excited. It’s very difficult to get excited about extended planning.

I love that I get a mix of experience in planning and execution – planning from the University, focusing on thorough research and analysis of a business idea, and experience with execution from being out in the world trying to implement things and learning what works and what doesn’t.

One of my mentors mentioned something at a recent brainstorming session that has really stuck with me: the value of discovery. You don’t really remember or appreciate something until you discover it for yourself. You can read about an idea, but it takes a very unique individual to be able to read something and be so passionate about the reading that they remember it. Discovery is such an important part of education – and I think that it’s present most in execution.

Another big distinction between real life and education is being okay with failure.  In entrepreneurship you are executing and discovering, and you are going to fail a lot.

Yeah – “fail fast” has been a buzz term in the last couple years for start-ups and entrepreneurs, and it’s important. It’s really, really important.  A fallback of planning is that sometimes you just can’t see that an idea is not going to work. When the idea fails, it becomes more obvious and you go, “Oh, I don’t know why I thought this was going to work.”  But now you know that it doesn’t work, and you learned that through discovery.
I wish that we could find a good way to encourage making mistakes in our education system. The discovery that they lead to is invaluable!

I think it’s also important to see people doing big, great, interesting things and realize that they have made tons of mistakes.  They had to.  They’ve made mistakes, discovered important things, and worked hard to correct and move past the obstacles that the mistakes shed light on.

What is one piece of advice you have for other students who want to make a difference and build a business?

Find what makes you really excited, and do it. And if it doesn’t work, change what doesn’t work, and try it again. Do that a lot. Eventually you’ll be doing something you love, better than you ever thought it could be done.

*SAGE is the Social and Advisory Group for Entrepreneurs, offered through the Rocky Mountain Innosphere, a local business incubator that Brennan is now a part of.

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3 Responses to Lunch Money and Failing Fast: A 20-Year Old Entrepreneur Shares His Story

  1. ar2de2 says:

    Fail fast…that’s not something we hear in the educational atmosphere…high time we celebrate failing as a perfectly legitimate means to success!

  2. Doug Bartlett says:

    Three cheers for acknowledging the importance of failures. We typically can learn more through our failures than through our successes. Failure should never be punished within an organization. Over the years and teams that I have lead, I always gave them the “freedom to fail”. Yet I had 3 rules regarding that freedom:
    1. Don’t let it be a spectactular (business killing) failure
    2. Learn from those failures – both individually & organizationally
    3. Don’t fail in the same way twice!

  3. Pingback: My Favorite 5 Posts from 2012 | Make a Difference

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