Entrepreneur turns off millennial path of college or bust

  • Joseph Lurtsema, a 23-year-old entrepreneur from Anchorage, said it brought his parents to tears when he dropped out of college but he’s proud of what he’s accomplished starting his own business and he faults the effort by society and educators to force young people into expensive colleges despite questionable job prospects that follow. (Photo/Naomi Klouda/AJOC)

Joseph Lurtsema’s entrepreneurial success began at age 19 when he parlayed his knowledge of peaks in the Chugach Mountains into a tourism gig.

At the end of taking international or Lower 48 visitors on a personalized hike up places such as Wolverine or Flattop, he drove them downtown to a day’s finish over hotdogs from a favorite street vendor.

That business, from 2013-26, filled summers between semesters. The millennial never had to take a paycheck from a traditional boss. Also, contrary to the stereotype, didn’t live in his parents’ basement.

“I paid rent and had a roommate,” he said.

Lurtsema made enough to support himself and the $1,000 monthly insurance premium to cover his LEEP Alaska Hiking Tours.

Now, at 23, he’s operating Lurtsema International LLC, which employs three people.

The purpose of this business is to develop digital marketing strategies that utilize social media for building clients’ target audiences “and convert said audience into paying customers and clients,” he said. “I manage the posts, content, information, and other items for my client’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and other platforms.”

In his hiking days, he learned how to market himself. Now he does it for others.

“I took people from all over the world on different adventures throughout Alaska. From day tours to multi-day backpacking trips, I hopped in my car with people from Iran, Russia, Philippines, India, Australia, to facilitate a guided hiking tour to let them discover Alaska’s wonders,” he said. “I learned how to market my company using a variety of platforms. My experience running this company gave me an appreciation for marketing, and I soon learned that I preferred marketing my company more than actually guiding hikes.”

Lurtsema also found that he couldn’t justify continuing his University of Alaska Anchorage studies, initially setting his goal to be a neurosurgeon. He quit three years in.

“It broke my parents’ hearts,” he acknowledged.

He also ran out of money, moved back home for a few months and he went to work for a traditional boss.

“From September 2016 till July 2017 I worked for a local magazine company to sell paid advertisement spots for the magazine. During my sales efforts, I met amazing people at networking events. I went to the 2nd Annual Young Professionals Group hosted by the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce. From that event alone, I quadrupled my income from the connections I made,” he said.

At the chamber events and through other networking, he met mentors who taught him more about marketing. He finished classes, courses, and other exercises on social media marketing. With support from a small network of business owners, friends and family, he officially launched Lurtsema International LLC.

Millennials at work

Lurtsema has thought a lot about what it means to be a member of the millennial generation — by some definitions those born between 1978 and 1998.

Since the “Baby Boomers” — those born in the years after World War II — millennials are likely the most scrutinized generation.

They are the first one in history growing up totally immersed in a world of digital technology, which is said to have shaped their identities and created lasting political, social and cultural attitudes. According to a new Pew Research Center analysis of the U.S. census data, millennials surpassed the previous Generation X in 2015 to become the largest share of the American workforce.

Pew also calculates that nearly half of all workers ages 25 to 29 completed a college degree.

But where do they work?

“That’s the biggest problem that I see,” Lurtsema said. “I feel like our public education system failed millennials.”

His generation was “scammed” into buying a bill of goods in the purchase of an expensive college education that came with $300 textbooks “that change every few semesters to a new edition.”

Trade schools and specialized programs are offering better paying jobs. And they don’t come with a hefty tuition, he notes.

“Everybody is getting a bachelor’s of arts degree these days,” he said. “There are so many degrees that make no sense. There’s one that’s Lesbian Dance Theory, I kid you not. I’m not saying that’s a bad degree, I’m saying ‘are you going to get a job?’ Unless you’re a professor in that subject, I don’t think so.

“Parents, educators and society have inflated the idea that once you get this college degree you’re going to be set for life, you’re going to live a dream life.”

Instead, Lurtsema knows people who have bachelor’s degrees that are working at McDonald’s. And yes, they often live with their parents. (Pew Research Center calculates 15 percent of 25- to 35-year-olds live with their parents.)

“As a millennial, I see that, and I see it happening while I’m at school (college) and I say I am setting up myself for failure,” he said. “And a lot of millennials are like this: Here’s the main road. It’s all paved and nice. To the right is a rough, bumpy, dusty road but it leads to the happiness people are seeking.”

The bumpy road without college is scary.

“Going down it is totally against everything I was taught since I was born. So it takes a lot of courage, drive, motivation and support,” he said.

It was his dream to call the shots in his own life by establishing a business based on his interests that would also serve others.

When he quit college, everyone was telling him to go back.

“Everybody,” he said. “I had maybe one or two people that were on my side. You can put this on the record because I think this is important for millennials to hear, too. Both of my parents were distraught. My dad (Mark Lurtsema) is one of the most supportive people I know. But if you asked if he would want me to go back to college, he would say yes. It brought him and my mom to tears when I quit.”

According to what Lurtsema researched, of those raised in the 1960s and 1970s, only 20 percent went to college. That meant their chances of working in their targeted career were excellent.

But today’s statistics haven’t caught up with the reality, he said. Many more go to college now, given grants of financial aid and other programs. The market is now oversaturated with college graduates and the demand to employ them isn’t in their favor, he said.

He faults the education system for failing to teach basic economic skills like balancing a checkbook.

“I knew how to do calculus. But I didn’t know how to balance a checkbook,” he said. “And we are taught nothing about investing.”

Lurtsema, a newlywed who married Marria Obina on Nov. 25, is now in the process of buying a condo. Marria is soon to graduate from UAA with an accounting degree. Their dream is to buy an RV at some point, and combine business and adventures on the road.

“I’m a millennial with traditional values that have a modern twist,” he said. “We are married, then we are buying a house and we will have kids. That’s the order and that’s the nuclear-stable family. But there’s a twist.”

Outside that framework, they want to plan far less traditional career paths.

Demand for tech skills

Lurtsema’s quest to find a lifestyle-career has led him to seek out an Anchorage entrepreneurial ecosystem that supports his and other millennials’ efforts. One great group, he said, is the Young Professionals Group hosted by the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce. (They meet the second Tuesday of every month).

Lurtsema attends meetings of Business Networking International, which has two local chapters. His group is BNI Connectors, which meets 7:30 a.m. every Wednesday at the New York Life Building on Northern Lights.

Another tie-in is the U.S. Small Business Administration Alaska Division Office that offers a lot of support and help for new businesses.

“I’ve been lucky to connect with SBA Director Nancy Porzio, who is bringing me on to teach small businesses how to utilize social media for their own business,” Lurtsema said. The dates haven’t been set yet.

He will be showing small businesses how to grow by increasing their social media footprint.

In creating his own business, Lurtsema found there’s a national market need that can be reached from Alaska. In fact, Amazon is soon to offer services-for-purchase and Lurtsema is signing on.

“A lot of these companies rose up, but they aren’t doing such a great job for their customers,” he said.

The rule of thumb is to make contact with your target audience groups at least three times a week. Then track the results carefully. In his case, he uses a variety of apps to measure market response. He makes weekly reports to his clients and he says they’ve seen results.

“I can track everything down to the smallest demographic,” he said.

He creates the Facebook account and other social media for his clients. Then he or his employees handle all the interactions. He charges a flat rate of $750 a month per client, and figures he can handle 20 clients between himself and his two employees.

His clients range from a local organic restaurant to a furniture store in Seattle. But the Seattle market, which charges up to $3,000 per month for the services that Lurtsema provides, allows him to charge more but still be competitive in the market with a $2,000 fee.

Lurtsema doesn’t have a desk or an office. That’s the part that truly separates him from other generations: no furnishings to frame his workday.

“Everything I need is right here,” he said, holding up his iPhone.

He’s loaded it with apps that go with his work, and can do his work everywhere he goes.

“I think it’s fantastic,” he said. “It’s simpler. It’s organized. It’s a lot cleaner.”

Over time, he said he’s learned that even though he was raised to believe that gong to college was best, “this business I’ve created has been the number one accomplishment I’ve done. And I don’t need society to tell me otherwise.”

Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
12/29/2017 - 9:51am

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