CLEVELAND, Ohio – Like many teens in America, Connor Blakley played sports during high school. But unlike most kids, a few years ago he started spending his down time studying the way his friends quickly scrolled through social media sites.
At 15, this Strongsville resident decided to position himself as a youth-marketing expert, targeting Generation Z consumers, which includes people born between 1990s and mid-2000s.
Now, at 18, while most of his friends are off to college, this high school drop-out is doing exactly what he set out to do, advising companies as large as Sprint, on how to reach an audience that’s generally ignored by most retailers.
Although comprised of people under 20 who generally haven’t even entered the workforce yet, members of Generation Z have a significant influence on spending power. Consider nearly $44 billion in discretionary spending alone, according to Forbes, a number that is only set to grow.
“I was playing basketball with my friends one day, and when we took a break I started watching how they were scrolling on their phones at a scary, rapid pace,” said the president of Youth Logic, his youth marketing consultancy firm.
“I started thinking about how you always hear about Millennials, but no one is really paying attention to Generation Z. I had a social media company at the time, but I wanted to make more money and travel to cooler places, so I figured I could position myself as a youth marketing expert.”
Growing up in a post-digital age has completely altered the way these adolescents form their identities and brand affinities, even compared to Millennials, which is the generation before them.
The younger sect is a group that’s developed distinct expectations for brands and advertising. Gen Z is more likely to seek entertainment from their smartphones or tablets and less likely to get information from traditional television programming. It’s a generation that’s grown up in a time of terrorism, war, political instability and tragedy. It’s also a generation that trusts the authentic relationships YouTube stars build with brands over celebrity partnerships.
Blakley said modern digital channels make it convenient and affordable for brands to start conversations with Gen-Zers, and an active social media presence is one of the easiest ways that a brand can build credibility with, and get feedback from, an audience.
“The best brands leverage strategies using Instagram influencer marketing and Twitter search to find their ideal customer,” he said.
Blakley has been in business for about five years already, first venturing into helping businesses with social media campaigns while in high school. Blakley said Youth Logic, has four employees and by the end of this year his company is expected to close just under $500,000 in revenues. He’s projecting to bill about $800,000 in 2018.
So it’s no surprise that he’s dabbled in entrepreneurship for most of his young life.
As early as 7 years old, play time became business time for him. He said he spent summer afternoons digging in his neighbors’ back yards and hunting down unique rocks and rare stones to sell back to them at their doorstep. That was his first business exit. Next, he started his own lemonade stand where he outsourced his little sisters for help in running it.
Yet, while he was entrepreneurial in spirit, he faced challenges in school. By the time he was in eighth grade at Center Middle School in Strongsville, he was diagnosed with ADHD and ADD.
“I was bored out of my mind when everyone was asked to ‘sit still and stay quiet.’ Due to my talking, asking questions, and constantly fidgeting, it didn’t take long for faculty to label me as ‘disruptive’ and eventually ADHD,” he recalled. “I’ve been diagnosed with ADHD and ADD and probably have a plethora of other things that I’ve not been diagnosed with, but I view it as a strength not a disadvantage. I’m not just saying that to sound giddy, I actually believe that.”
Even though he wasn’t able to focus on school, he was focused on business. He found himself spending a lot of time online. At age 13, he watched a TEDX talk for entrepreneurs given by author, speaker and business advisor Cameron Herold. He then sent a few emails to Herold until he finally responded. Cutting through the clutter was not easy, considering Herold’s talks get a couple million page views.
Blakley’s age had nothing to do with it, Herold said. If anything it was even more reason not to respond. “By the third email, it was something about the tone in the email and what he said about running his business and how he needed help … I don’t know… he became no longer a kid,” he said.
Now this father of four children, ages 10 to 16, is Blakley’s personal mentor and advisor for both business and his personal life. Herold, who lives both in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Vancouver, Canada, helped convince Blakley’s father, a businessman, not to push him to go to college. That’s not easy either, considering Blakley’s mother is an elementary school teacher. Herold has seen him speak a few times and has been impressed with not only his delivery, but also his follow-up.
“He was worthy of mentoring in both business and personally,” Herold said. “I introduced him to the CEO of Sprint who is a friend and also a client. I also coached one of his second in commands … I also introduced him to the CEO of HootSuite and Levi Jeans. And every time there is an introduction, people are wowed.”
The first time Herold reached out to Blakley by Skype, he said he felt awkward reaching out to a child. So he followed his wife’s suggestion and got Blakley’s parents’ permission first.
Bob Sopko, whose job it is to turn Case Western Reserve University into a training ground for entrepreneurs, said he recently met Blakley through Cynthia Bailies, director of the Veale Foundation, an organization that helps youth entrepreneurs to grow.
Sopko said he was impressed to learn that a teenager in Northeast Ohio was being paid by organizations to attend major national events including the American Marketing Association and the Association of National Advertisers, and Fortune 1,000 companies.
“It was interesting to find one of the most respected Generation Z thought leaders living here,” said Sopko, director of Case Western Reserve’s Blackstone LaunchPad. “It was also funny that he was delayed as his parents needed him to watch his younger siblings until they got home.”
By the time he was a senior at St. Edward High School in spring 2017, he was asked to leave at the beginning of the year, primarily because he was traveling too much and missed too many days of school.
“My GPA was not that good, but I don’t understand how they’re building an entrepreneurial center and yet they kicked out one of the most high-performing entrepreneurs that’s come out of the school in the past 20 years,” he said.
Principal James Reed, who joined St. Edward High School in July, had no comment.
Herold said he pleaded with Blakley’s father not to push him to take the typical college route, because there’s nothing typical about him.
“He would die in college,” he said before mentioning challenges like ADD. “But he’s entrepreneurial. He’s got companies paying him serious money. He sits in a board room with a CEO and CMO for 90 minutes. He’s seriously truly unbelievable,” he said.
“The CEO of Sprint asked me, ‘Is this kid for real?’ At his first meeting he said he gets 90 minutes with me,” Herold said. “You have to understand. (The CEO’s) time is scheduled in 5-minute increments. And the first meeting Connor gets is 90 minutes?”
“He’ll learn more in that meeting than a whole year in a university,” he said. “He would have completely wasted his time and money.”
Blakley said he has no intentions to go to college.
“As long as I continue to do what I want I’ll be happy,” he said. “I just want to continue to surround myself with like-minded people who can help me grow as a person.”
Here’s a glimpse at the way Blakley thinks:
Q. What are a few things companies need to know about Gen Z?
A. The No.1 thing is digital intuitiveness. I say this all the time: We’re the first generation to Facetime our friends, call our mom and order a pizza at the same time.
Q. According to a study done by Millennial Branding and Internships.com, 72 percent of high school students want to start their own business someday, and 61 percent expect to start a business right out of college. Are you surprised?
A. Not surprised at all, I saw these things firsthand from fellow students and friends. I was super excited to start to advise the Veale Foundation so we can help hungry young entrepreneurs in Northeast Ohio get a head start! I was supposed to be MC, but I got an opportunity to speak in Toronto that I couldn’t pass up. But I helped find speakers for their February conference. I hope that every high school in Northeast Ohio finds a way to get involved because this event truly has the potential to change student’s lives.
Q. At the tender age of just turning 18, what do you do for fun?
A. I work out and hang out with friends even though they’ve all left for college. I hang out with my girlfriend and friends that are still here. I play basketball. I like to travel, but not for fun. It’s always for work, but I always like to go a day early to just have fun. I recently got back into video games. I don’t know why. I don’t necessarily know if balance is the right thing for me. That’s not my life. For me personally, my key to happiness is doing what I want.
Q. What accomplishment are you most proud of in recent months?
A. I finally found a way to discipline myself to get into a routine and lose weight. I started working out every day for the first time since I stopped playing sports beginning of my junior year and I started running. It fluctuates, but I’ve lost between 19 to 23 pounds in the last two months.