You’re never too old to start a company. But you’ll need to show the same commitment, passion, and willingness to sacrifice as any younger entrepreneur.
One recent theme at the Triangle Startup Factory is that of the later-in-life entrepreneur. We are seeing a lot of newly minted company founders with gray in their hair. In fact, in our 11-company portfolio we have three founders older than 50, two founders older than 40, and at least three founders older than 30.
Starting a company at this stage in life presents a number of specific challenges. We’ve learned that they need to be addressed directly, before they create friction between co-founders, between founders and future investors, and even between founders and their advisers and mentors. The issues might include:
- The need to maintain current income to support a family
- The need to maintain current income to support an acquired lifestyle
- Family pressures that limit available time
- Location restrictions that limit future company movement
- Trouble getting comfortable with how people communicate in contemporary start-ups (also known as the “sorry, I don’t use email” problem)
- Insufficient levels of commitment and passion
I’ve written previously about the leap–that moment when you say yes, without reservation. Before you take the leap, I said, you should gather as much data as possible to mitigate risk. But some amount of risk is inherent in the leap, no matter what you do, and you have to accept your share of it.
At Triangle Startup Factory, we invest $50,000 in each company we admit to the program. Recently, a two-person team with one later-in-life founder made it to the last stage of our selection process. When pressed, the older co-founder revealed that he could not or would not quit his consulting practice– though we make it clear to all applicants that our program is an all-in commitment. The man said he simply couldn’t go without income for any period of time. Our impression is that he thought his team’s idea was so magical that we would waive one of our essential requirements. He also thought that he could work both gigs and still be successful.
In other words, he expected me to take all the risk. By the way, he drives a Mercedes.
Contrast that fellow (whose partner, by the way, was stunned and angry) with another older entrepreneur we have been working with. As his start-up idea moved from idea to action, he prepared himself and his family for the leap. While still working full time, he began to curtail his lifestyle: He downgraded his automobiles, cut out the big family vacation, and started living on less. He was able to create a 12-month financial cushion.
This founder is definitely taking a share of the risk. And because he doesn’t expect his start-up to support his lifestyle, the company has more freedom to allocate capital to other needs, which in turn enables the company to grow faster.
“Insufficient levels of commitment and passion”
WTF? Really? Is that what you think? I’m sorry, but this is bullshit. There’s nothing inherent about being “later in life” that automatically equates to “insufficient levels of commitment and passion”. I challenge anybody to prove that this is anything but unsubstantiated hyperbole.
If anything, a “later in life” person is likely to be *more* motivated, as they have the sensation of having less time left to achieve their dreams. As a 39 year old (going on 40) I can say for damn sure that I’m more motivated right now than I was at, say, 20. Or 26, or 31. or 36. I hear the freakin’ clock ticking, man.
The way I see it, to use a sports metaphor, it’s like I’m down by 6, with 1:27 left to play in the 4th quarter, and have the ball on my own 20 yard line. It’s “four down territory” all the way, and maybe time to start thinking about a Hail Mary or two. Passion? Feh, I’ll put my level of passion up against any 20 something you want to roll out there. 🙂
Great perspective…it’s all about risk, and I’ve found as I age; I put more weight on the downside risk and candidly not enough on the upside opportunity. The reality is downside risk is usually more predictable and known. I joined a startup at 26 years old based in NY…sales were <$100K a year and the check from the VC hadn't yet hit the bank; I was newly married and was excited about the potential of doing something new and different in the pre-Google era / dot-com boon…I thought the job would last 5 years and I'd cash out and live and a lavish lifestyle…but hey, things happen. Instead, I had a 13 year run and had an unprecedented opportunity to gain career experiences and exposure that many don't see in a lifetime – I had 7 different roles in that span, survived 4 CEO changes and as many boss changes. The company evolved and revenues grew, pulled back and grew again; I learned to "change tires on a car while it was moving"; motivate a myriad of personalities, open new offices, launch new product lines, interact with a board, vc firms, competitive landscape pressures etc…we finally exited last year via acquisition by a publicly traded company – and it was a succesful one. I gained new perspective on how to survive an acquisition and integration period; but it was a big culture shift and I decided to move on. But at age 40 with three kids and a mortgage; my risk tolerance changed. I had opportunties to join new start-ups and try to do it all over again…my heart wanted to throw the dice and dive in and leverage my experiences on the second go round…but life pressures and fear of downside risk held me back and I took the safer route (for now). Did I make the right call? It's not clear yet; but the heart still yearns (and I don't drive a Mercedes…)