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Age Matters — But Not the Way You Think It Does

Photo by Alexandre Debiève on Unsplash

You might think youth is where it’s at when it comes to entrepreneurship, but I beg to differ

by Mark Long, director of incubation services at the University of Florida

I had an interesting experience this past weekend judging a business plan contest. No, it wasn’t just the companies who presented that were interesting (although they really were; I’m excited about the new technologies being developed); it was the networking that really took a novel turn.

First, to set the stage for those of you who don’t know me, I’m 64 years old. Yep, I’m a geezer, I’ve been around for a while, I have significant miles on my odometer. I’m okay with being older. I’ve paid my dues, and I’m grateful for the experiences I’ve had in my lifetime. But — just in case you were wondering — I’m not done yet. I enjoy my work and I thrive on new challenges, and I look forward to moving ahead in my career.

However, let me take you back to the judging episode:

  • All those pitching were from new healthcare companies, attempting to “revolutionize their marketplace.” (Kudos to them all!)
  • Second, the judging panel consisted of some high-quality individuals (including my humble self) who were venture investors and subject-matter experts. Nearly all of us had judged numerous entrepreneurial pitches before this particular contest.
  • And all the judges were under age 30 — except me. Yup. I was the lone old person, and I did my best to represent. The other judges were competent and extremely friendly and considerate, as well. They all had great questions and brilliant insight.

After I left the stage, I was approached by a young man interested in my work efforts and in my location. I spoke to him a bit about what I do (business incubation) and how it works. We also discussed his market, his product, and his future direction.

“You know, you’d be a really great CEO for my company, and you would really fit in well out in Silicon Valley — IF YOU WERE YOUNGER,” he stated as the conversation came to a close. (Emphasis mine; he did not yell those four words.)

I don’t think he grasped the significance of what he said, so I cut him a break, just smiled, and told him if I could help in any other way I’d be glad to do so. We parted company and I walked away.

Then it hit me hard.

If I were YOUNGER? What, now I’m yesterday’s news? Put out to pasture already?

The expected growth pattern of his company, IF he was going to be successful, was probably two years maximum. He had to grow fast, obtain quick market share, and hit markets hard, promoting his concept.

I’m relatively healthy, and doing my best to keep myself alive at least 20–30 more years — but he can’t give me 2 years?

I know what he meant. It wasn’t that I was “too old to do the job” but that rather the perception of my age might interfere with marketing his product to the “right audiences” and may not blend in with his team. After all, you don’t see 64-year-olds running around handling startups in Silicon Valley — or do you?

As a matter of fact, survey analysis conducted this year showed successful founders in the Valley are older than ambitious young founders. So there! (And, for the record, I prefer the terms “experienced and seasoned” rather than “old.”)

A lot can be said for experience. I’ve spoken to many investors who say, “Give me a great, experienced team with a mediocre technology anytime over a mediocre team with a great technology.”

The PEOPLE make the difference (emphasis mine; I’m not shouting either). When you look for people to help you succeed, you look for experience. You want people who can advise you (i.e. say “don’t do that; we tried it and it didn’t work”).

You want people who have connections. (We old folks used to say, “We need people with a large Rolodex.” Look it up if you don’t know, whippersnapper!) You want people with connections and a strong network; people who can introduce you to funders, advisors, managers, employees, and technical help.

As they say (and should say!), “There’s no substitute for experience.” You don’t necessarily have to be old to be experienced, but if you are older, you’d best have some experience under your belt.

So, when you’re thinking about how to get that startup over the next hill, remember the geezers. They’ve been there, done that, experienced this, defeated that and have most likely already climbed those hills.

Be careful about dismissing those who may be substantially advanced in years. They may have the experience level you need. (And they just might write a snarky blog post about you if you say to them, “If only you were younger…”)

Originally published at incubatorblogger.wordpress.com on November 13, 2018.

Mark Long has long experienced the intricacies of business incubation, acceleration, coworking spaces, makerspaces and other entrepreneurial assistance venues around the world. He shares his experience, outlook, background knowledge, studies, and observations in regular posts at the IncubatorBlogger. Feel free to follow him there — or follow him and UF Innovate right here.

University of Florida Innovate supports an innovation ecosystem that moves research discoveries from the laboratory to the market, fostering a resilient economy and making the world a better place. Based at one of the nation’s leading research institutions, UF Innovate comprises four organizations: Tech Licensing, Ventures, The Hub, and Sid Martin Biotech. Within the UF Office of Research, the four organizations form a comprehensive system to take technologies from the lab to the public, bringing together the five critical elements in the “innovation ecosystem”: facilities, capital, management talent, intellectual property and technology-transfer expertise.

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Tech Licensing, Ventures, Pathways, and Accelerate, which includes two business incubators, The Hub and Sid Martin Biotech. We build business on innovation.