Opportunity Doesn't Expire: A Guide to Ageless Entrepreneurship
March was a monumental month in the business world. A pair of 20-something co-founders became billionaires during Snap Inc.'s IPO: Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy are now both worth about $5.3 billion.
In my personal universe, I turned 30 the same month and am now a full-fledged member of the adult club, and comfortable admitting I no longer qualify for those coveted “30 under 30” lists. Yes, I also still fall into the 44 percent of entrepreneurs that BNP Paribas reports are 35 and younger. And I don't subscribe to the idea that entrepreneurship is a young person's game, as numerous get-rich-eventually stories insist.
Ever heard of Sam Walton? He was already 44 when he started Walmart. Arianna Huffington? She launched The Huffington Post in her mid-50s. And, you can bet your next tall caffè mocha sugar bomb that Starbucks co-founder Gordon Bowker didn't care that when he opened his first location he was 51.
The recent surge of young entrepreneurs is a reaction to the global connectivity of the internet, and I suspect that the waves of industrial innovation will continue to ebb and flow just as they did in 1785, 1845, 1900 and 1990. In other words, everything will equalize. The gray-haired dreamers of the world can breathe a much-needed sigh of relief -- they still get to play.
Alive and kicking in every generation
Millennials were raised during one of the largest upward innovation curves we’ve ever seen. Our collective DNA pulses with entrepreneurial juices, and members of the next cohort, Generation Z, are reportedly an even more entrepreneurial bunch. But that doesn’t mean entrepreneurship is solely for the young’uns.
Aspiring entrepreneurs who are well over 30 are the primary clientele that approaches our startup studio for assistance getting off the ground.
These are people who have already mastered their respective industries but are starting to embrace technology to solve complex problems, in novel ways.
They’ve been bitten by the entrepreneurial bug because it’s cheaper and faster than ever to start a technology company. And, then, the world is so welcoming to the tech sector: Information is readily available online. Innovation is everywhere. Capital markets are abundant. Connecting with global talent is as easy as making a few keystrokes.
And the petroleum giants of old are no longer dominating the business scene: Four of the world's five most valuable companies, after all, are focused on technology. Who wouldn't want to get in on the action?
Things I wish I'd known back in the day
Don't get me wrong, entrepreneurship definitely still appeals to younger people who are free to follow their dreams without the need to cover a mortgage or provide for a family. I was 15 when I launched my first company from my dad's house; I didn't have much to lose. That said, I think we're about to see more gray-hairs enter the tech game.
Given my newfound maturity, however, I've been reflecting on a few lessons that could've saved me from heartaches and headaches over the past decade. Entrepreneurs young and old alike can hit the ground running if they heed this advice.
1. Seek genuine relationships.
It takes time and energy to build relationships, but the investment is worth it. People who actually care about you will be the ones who support you when times get tough and celebrate with you when the great times roll. They’re also important financially: About one in six entrepreneurs get startup funding from acquaintances, friends and family, according to a University of Michigan study.
I’ve had a total of nine investors in my companies over the years, and I had known six of them for more than four years before they ever invested a penny. Of the 12 partners I’ve had, I was friends or colleagues with each one for at least three years. One of my partners is a close friend from high school. Building a sound relationship before going into business with someone is a recipe that works wonders.
2. Get a coach.
James Rores has been my personal coach since 2009, and I likely would've given up if it weren't for our sessions. He has taught me critical skills such as crisis management and has helped me with my own life, my relationships, my family and my company.
A strong coach can give you a renewed sense of control. Your startup will only ever be as good as you are. An International Coach Federation study found that companies that invested in coaching typically reported a 700 percent return on their initial investments. Considering that about half of businesses fail in the first five years, good-quality coaching could make the difference between booming success and bankruptcy.
3. Learn the power of “no.”
“No” is one of the most powerful words in the human language. It’s almost magical. Once you realize it’s okay to turn away toxic clients, decline a pay-raise request or nix an advisor position, you can concentrate on what matters. Focus on the 20 percent of customers who bring in 80 percent of your business, you can change the scoreboard. Purge the idea that saying "yes" to everything will make you successful. I’ll admit I’m still working to perfect this one.
4. Ask good questions.
I’m a problem-solver at heart. I like to jump in and fix things, but a hands-on approach doesn’t scale. Focus on becoming a servant leader, which requires you to shut up and empower your team by asking smart questions (while resisting the urge to step in and solve problems). I just finished reading The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier, which provided great insight on this topic.
But what questions should you ask? Many people feel compelled to ask complex and theoretical questions, but the best ones are relatively simple. And don't forget to keep your mouth shut when you get a response.
5. Enjoy the journey.
Everyone fails at some point. The higher you are, the faster you fall. I myself lost a seven-figure arbitration case, flirted with bankruptcy, fired my best friend, borrowed money to make payroll and ugly-cried in the shower after getting pushed out of my own company. This was all before I turned 30.
Being an entrepreneur is a rough ride. I grew up in eastern Ohio, near Cedar Point -- the best amusement park in the world -- and my entrepreneurial journey takes me back to a ride on the park’s iconic Millenium Force roller coaster. The highs are insanely high, but the lows come at you pretty quickly. If you can make a positive dent in the world, build a brand and company and have fun accomplishing incredible things with close friends and colleagues, the ride is well worth the price of admission. The adrenaline rush can also be pretty addictive.
Entrepreneurship is exhilarating and exhausting, which could be the reason so many young people are entranced by its allure. I was fortunate to enjoy some incredible experiences as an enterprising young dude, but the business world is big enough for visionaries of all ages to come together and create amazing things. Age truly is nothing but a number.