They don’t call her “the millennial whisperer” for nothing. As the founder and CEO of New Jersey-based Buzz Marketing Group, Tina Wells, 37, curates and surveys a network of 37,000 influencers who test, share and endorse products from brands like Microsoft, Sony and Shea Moisture.
Starting her own company at just 16 years old, Wells knows plenty about what young people want and think — so much so that she’s published a young-adult series with Harper Collins, Mackenzie Blue, about a middle-schooler who’s an expert shopper. She’s also academic director of Leadership in the Business World, an intensive summer program at The Wharton School, where she teaches teens who are hungry to learn more about business.
Here’s what Wells learned from developing her great business idea as a highschooler.
When I started my company, I really just thought it was a cool way to get free stuff that my parents weren’t going to pay for. I was writing product reviews for a teen-focused newspaper called the “New Girl Times,” and PR firms would send me free products to cover for my column. What I didn’t realize was that I was becoming known among these firms as the teenager who, if you send her products, will tell you what she thinks (and what her friends think). I was doing market research for these companies and didn’t even know it.
My aha moment didn’t occur until I did a report for this now-defunct brand called Hippy. It was basically Spanx before Spanx. Hippy was being repped by LaForce & Stevens, the well-known PR agency, and they called me into their offices for a meeting with seven of their publicists. They said, “Hey, you’re onto something — what you guys are saying is much more interesting than what we’re getting back from these so-called focus groups we’re paying $25,000 for a report.” Soon after that, I registered my own company, a teen research firm, with my mother’s help, and during my freshman year at Hood College, the head of the business department, Dr. Anita Jose, took me under her wing for independent study. I spent 13 weeks perfecting my business plan.
“I remember having a mini-meltdown with my mom, like, ‘This is too much!’ She said, ‘Girlfriend, take a nap. You’ll figure it out.’”
This was around the time of Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, NSync, Teen Vogue and Elle Girl. Abercrombie exploded. So I was really able to ride the wave of brands saying, “Oh wow, teenagers are interesting people again.” When those teenagers we were studying grew up to become the biggest demographic ever, known as millennials, we were really in the right place. So it wasn’t like I just stepped out and said, “Here I am.” I was having very timely conversations about what was happening.
Today, I’m a huge proponent of entrepreneurs starting early. The mistakes I made and the bumps and bruises I had in my teens and 20s, I couldn’t afford at 37. I was in New York for a meeting recently and someone said, “You’re so busy! When do you sleep?” But I’m actually less busy now than I was in undergrad. My senior year at Hood, I was working with Don Coleman, founder of the multicultural ad agency GlobalHue, running a six-figure account for Verizon’s “FreeUp” program — all while my senior thesis was due. I remember having a mini-meltdown with my mom, like, “This is too much! I don’t know why I thought I could do all these things at the same time!” She said, “Girlfriend, take a nap. You’ll figure it out.” And I did.
All the things I did for my own business, I teach now to the high school seniors who take my summer program at Wharton. My best advice to aspiring young entrepreneurs? Don’t overreact. We’re in a moment in time of extreme behaviors, and I find that sometimes the best thing to do is nothing at all. Take a minute, think about the best approach, then act. Just take a beat. Don’t send the angry email or text. I’ve set it up so that every day at noon I get an alert on my phone that says, “There’s always a solution of the highest good.” It’s a reminder to not have a knee-jerk reaction to things.