Many twentysomethings talk about feeling undervalued by corporate America. Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman are doing what many others are doing to solve this problem: starting their own company. At universities like Harvard and Carnegie Mellon 30-40% of graduates end up starting their own business after five years, and the trend is poised to go up.

The entry-level job inherently undervalues someone who is bright and driven, according to Paul Graham, partner at Y Combinator, a Cambridge-based venture capital firm that funds startups almost exclusively from very young people. He sees entrepreneurship as the great escape.

“For the most ambitious young people, the corporate ladder is obsolete,” says Graham. For the last hundred years everyone started out at the bottom. Even if the candidate held extreme promise, corporations put the candidate as a trainee on the bottom rung so he didn’t get a big head. Graham writes, “The most productive young people will always be undervalued by large organizations, because the young have no performance to measure yet, and any error in guessing their ability will tend toward the mean.”

So, if you are smart and energetic, you might be better off working for yourself. Ohanian and Huffman started their own company before they even graduated from University of Virginia. Today they are twenty-two, and running their company, Reddit, out of their Cambridge apartment. Huffman turned down a job offer at a software company in Virginia so that he could write the software for Reddit, which is a little like social book marking and a little like RSS feed: Think “the five most emailed Boston Globe stories” only not just the newspaper but the whole wide web.

The value of people in their twenties is touted fervently at Google, a company always on the lookout to buy companies from young entrepreneurs. On a blog entry about a conference for entrepreneurs in their early twenties, Chris Sacca, principal for new business development at Google wrote, “I was instantly struck by the sheer energy of the crowd. No one was running off to check in with their assistant or jump onto a mindless conference call with sales finance.”

Graham estimates that a top programmer can work for $80,000 a year in a large company, but he can be 36 more times productive without corporate trappings (e.g. a boss, killed projects, interruptions) and will generate something worth three million dollars in that same year if he is working on his own. Before you balk at those figures, consider that Ohanian and Huffman started their company in June 2005 and by November 2005 they received a buyout offer from Google, (which they declined in favor of continuing to build the company on their own.)

But not everyone is sitting on a great idea for a company. For those who eventually want to start your own business — once your find an idea — use the time beforehand to learn the right skills. Jennifer Floren, CEO of Experience and an entrepreneur herself, recommends going to a small company “where you will usually be able to see first hand what each part of the company does. At a big company you won’t get such wide exposure.” Also, “look for opportunities to be creative or take a leadership role, two good types of experience for an entrepreneur to have.”

If you have spent some time in the workforce, consider becoming a consultant, which essentially is making a business out of yourself. “You should have at least five years of workplace experience before you go on your own,” says Laurie Young, co-principle of Flexible Resources, “because you are offering your experience.” Also, you need marketing skills to sell yourself.” It takes a certain kind of talent “to show people you have skills they can use.”

Alexandra Levit worked in public relations for Computer Associates and then struck out on her own, as a consultant in publicity and marketing communications. In terms of making the transition, Levit advises that you “try lining up a few jobs that you can have before you take the leap,” and be prepared to spend “about 30% of your time marketing yourself.”

Levit provides a snapshot of reality for all entrepreneurs when she says, “Don’t expect the drawbacks to be only financial. You need a lot of self-discipline to sit down in your home office and work without any external pressure. Working for yourself means you’re responsible for every aspect of the business,” and this means, ironically, even the boring, entry-level job that you would have done in a big company.

Ohanim can attest to this, too: “I am spending a lot of time right now doing our taxes. We merged with a company and they kept terrible records.” But, he says, “I really like the notion of not having to look to a superior, to have independence and be doing the entrepreneurial thing.”

Entrepreneurship used to be an inclination that festered until a midlife crisis. But the entrepreneurship bug isn’t something that hits in middle age, so why wait that long? Today, the people who start most new businesses are under 34 — and if they’re doing it, so can you. Don't be stifled by your age or lack of experience. And don’t be put off by the bad advice people spew when you mention entrepreneurship.

Bad advice #1: You won’t make enough money.
Insane. Who is making enough money at the anything new? No one. The few who pull down six figures at the beginning probably spent six figures on grad school and are paying it back, with interest. So the fatalists who say you won’t make enough money are really telling you to never switch careers, never risk being a beginner, never bet on yourself. This way of thinking will put your career in a coma.

What many people mean when they say you won’t make enough money is that you won’t *raise* enough money. After all, if you raised a ton of money to start your business, you could pay yourself a great salary. Most of you have ideas that do not require amazing fundraising efforts. And, let’s face it, if you are coming up with ideas that require a six-million-dollar investment, that’s not really a good idea.

Bad advice #2: You can be entrepreneurial in a large company.
Large corporations suck up fast-paced, fun, innovative small business and make them boring, and then tell you, in an interview, that the position you are considering is very entrepreneurial. It’s not. If it were entrepreneurial then it would be too big a wild card to fit into a corporate hierarchy. What the corporate maven really means is that the position you’re interviewing for could be entrepreneurial if it were not in a large company.

Bad advice #3: Starting your own business is too risky.
At this point in loyalty-free corporate life, it may be higher risk to work for someone else. You probably know someone who got laid off in the 90s. And you probably know someone who got off-shored in the 00s. It was risky of them to bet that a large company would keep them around.

And when you’re sifting through those ubiquitous statistics that say most new business fail, think about the perspective of those numbers: Seventy-six percent of new businesses make it off the ground. Sure, most do not last as long as say, General Motors. But are you looking to run a multinational company, or are you looking to get control over your time so you don’t get laid off or tapped to travel from home six weeks in a row?

Don’t listen to those people who tell you small businesses are risky. Listen to Matt Rivers, owner of Pump House surf shop in Massachusetts, who went into business when he was 17. To him, the biggest risk was that he’d have to grow up and get a job that wouldn’t allow him to surf. Matt redefined the meaning of risk, and you should, too. What is most important in your life? Can starting your own business get that for you better than a corporate job? Then entrepreneurship is pretty low-risk for you.

And here’s a piece of good advice: Don’t think of failure as black and white. Rivers was so successful with his first shop that he opened a second. But running between the two shops took too much time away from surfing, and the extra money wasn’t worth it. So he closed the second shop. Is that failure? To some, maybe. But to those of us who are enlightened, closing down a business is not so much failure as it is gaining self-knowledge to lead a more fulfilling life going forward.

Feeling stuck? Uninspired? As though your New Year's resolutions have no spark? Maybe it's time to start your own business. It’s likely you intuitively know if you're actually an entrepreneur stuffed in a corporate cubicle. The entrepreneurship bug isn’t something that hits in middle age. It’s something that's inside you from day one — a part of who you are. So don't be stifled by your age or lack of experience. Just make sure you have the right personality for success and the right attitude toward failure.

Get a good idea
Starting a business is very high-risk. Most entrepreneurs fail. So minimize your risk by honestly evaluating if your concept is valid and marketable. Remember, just because you like your idea doesn't mean there’s a market full of buyers for it, so do your research. Tip: your mom’s opinion doesn’t count because she’s biased, so find a small business mentor and ask her.

Assess your personality
You also need the right personality to run your own business. You must like people and people must like you — so you can get them to do what you want. You need to be able to make fast, confident decisions, and you need to be organized so that you can give clear direction to others. If your product launch flops, you are the one who has to tell everyone why the company is still on the road to success. If you can’t rally the troops, you need a business partner.

You also need boundless energy. When you own the company, you set the pace and the standards. Remember the day at the office last month when you were upset and tired from worrying about your personal life the night before, so you surfed the Internet all day? Relaxing, wasn’t it? You can’t do this when you own the company. Most small business owners work 80-hour weeks and wish they needed less sleep.

I have these traits. And I started a business. I raised funds and hired employees, and, surprise, the company was successful and I eventually cashed out. But I paid a high price. I worked almost every waking minute. When cash flow was poor, I worried not only about my own paycheck, but about the paychecks of my employees. When cash flow was good, deal flow was heavy and my workload doubled even though I was already maxed out. While I was negotiating the sale of my shares, my hair started falling out. I didn't know this happened to women, but apparently it does, usually from intense stress.
Fortunately, most small business owners are optimistic. And I am, too. I bought some Nioxin to make my hair grow back. And once I regained my former full mane, I started another business.

It failed. And I lost a lot of the money I made from the first business. There were many reasons for the failure: Bad timing, bad economy, and maybe, in hindsight, bad idea. If you think you have the personality to succeed as a small business owner, make sure you have the right approach to failure as well.

Minimize risk to your checkbook and your career
I invested only the money I could afford to lose. I had no kids and no mortgage. I lost my loot from my first company, but I didn't lose my shirt: I kept enough to live on for a while longer.” Think of starting a business as gambling: When you go to Vegas, never bet your plane fare home. Once my company closed, I enlisted a resume-writing service to help me frame my business flop as a career hop to the next level of management.

Fail quickly and move on
Most business leaders fail once or twice before hitting it big. Think of failure as a necessary career step and move through it quickly and assuredly — recognize when things are going poorly, fail fast, learn, and get another idea.

To those of you with the right personality, I say bring it on! You will be pleased that you turned tough economic times into an opportunity for fulfillment. And even if you fail, remember that statistics indicate you are most likely to succeed when you are doing something you love.

More people and companies declare bankruptcy in January than in any other month, and certainly this year will be no exception. Many more people will not technically declare bankruptcy, but they will feel financially battered.

There is hope, though. There are tricks to being in a financial hole. I know because I've been there. In fact, you could say I fell off a financial cliff.

My stampede toward that cliff began when I got funding for an Internet company and cashed out of that company in the span of about five months. I started another company, and feeling like I was the most brilliant businessperson on earth, I invested my own money. I got a round of funding and paid myself (and my friends) extremely well.

Then the Internet bubble exploded, and my company was one at the epicenter. The first thing I did was tried to protect the people at my company. I gave as much notice as possible, so they could save money, and I helped everyone update their resumes as a last, hopeful act.

Then I was on my own. No more cushy, jet-set salary. No more juicy stack of stock options. I lost the pile of money I made, and I was lucky to get away with a portion of my savings intact.

I spent a lot of time getting out of financial commitments: the personal assistant, the BMW, the trips to Europe. And no more investing in friends' companies.

But financial ruin is like death, and I spent a good amount of time in the denial stage. So I didn't cut all the obvious expenses right away. It was gradual. As in, I gradually ruined myself even more, and then I cut down my expenses to a sustainable level.

I spent a lot of time with lawyers, which was a stupid idea because they did nothing for me except listen to me bitch about bankruptcy law. One lawyer could see that, more than legal advice, I needed life advice. He said, “Almost all business owners fail once or twice. The people who make it big are the people who can bounce back and do something new.”

But I was not in a position to be a good listener. I was thinking about if he would charge me for the time he was giving unsolicited advice.

I spent a lot of time with friends — eating cheap sandwiches. Some of my friends dumped me when my company went bankrupt. Okay, they weren't really my friends if they dumped me for that, but still, I felt embarrassed and isolated. My remaining friends were sympathetic for a while, but soon they said, “Okay, it's over. You failed. But you can start something new.”

This is when the lawyer's advice came back to me — suddenly sounding like it was worth $200 an hour. I thought a lot about what sort of life I wanted to lead. How much money I really needed. And it turned out that I didn't need as much as I had thought. So I cut down my expenses drastically while I thought about what I really wanted to do.

I took swing-dancing lessons. I danced every night for a year while I thought about what to do next. Friends would call and I'd say, “Sorry, I can't talk. The band goes on in a half-hour.” My friends thought I was crazy, but you need to do something a little crazy in order to gain distance from your failure. If you go right back to the life you were leading, it's hard to find perspective.

When I went back to corporate life, I tried a few things at once: I accepted a job in a new industry, I investigated starting a new company, and I did freelance writing. As it turns out, the freelance writing is what was best for my next step. But this is a step I would never have taken if my company had not gone belly-up.

The saying that failure breeds opportunity is true. First you have to sulk. Then you have to explore. But you will find something that excites you, and you will try again. And maybe you will fall off a financial cliff again in your life. But the next time, you'll be an expert.