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Running A Startup At 40

Not everyone who starts a company is a 19-year-old college dropout. This is one story of what it’s like to do it in middle age.

Running A Startup At 40
[Cowboy Image: Lincoln Rogers via Shutterstock]

Jan Ihmels is 40. And despite a few quirks–being a German living in Tel Aviv, for instance–in most ways, his life resembles that of any other average 40-year-old professional. He has a graduate degree. He has two kids with his ex-wife (she has custody; he spends several afternoons a week with them). He lives just outside of the city, braving the awful traffic for his commute to work.

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Jan Ihmels with his kids

The one thing that sets Ihmels apart from many 40-year-olds? He runs an early-stage startup–his first. He spent his 20s and much of his 30s in academia–mainly writing code to analyze regulation of genes–ultimately determining that it wasn’t for him. Then the lifelong lover of languages (he speaks English, Hebrew, Russian, and German) saw an opportunity to reinvent language learning online. So just a few years ago, as he was solidly in his late 30s, he and a cofounder started Lingua.ly.

What this means is that Ihmels must weather the indignities of first-startup founding–lack of time and income–that are more naturally endured by those in their 20s. He admits it’s basically the “worst stage of my life” to be doing this. But he says he wouldn’t trade it for anything, despite the indignities (and there are many). His hours are so long, and Tel Aviv’s traffic’s so bad, that he has taken to sleeping on a mattress in a corner of the office. He took care to choose an office with a shower and a kitchen. “There’s this Ramen cliché,” he says. “It’s not quite that bad. I’ll fry an egg or something.”

Ihmels in a pitch

Dating’s “a sore subject,” he says. Between his kids and work, there’s simply no time. One kind soul recently joined him for a quick pizza date at his office. The hardest thing, though? Juggling the startup life with parenting two young kids. Few things stung quite as hard as having to explain to little Noam (who turns 10 this year) that Daddy couldn’t afford to buy those Xbox games right now, because Daddy was building a company from scratch.

Ihmels’s solution? To teach his kids more about his work, technology, and the pleasures–and there are some!–of founding a startup.

His children’s early exposure to his work has yielded amusing misunderstandings. Noam came by the office a few years ago and met a coder with a bushy beard; curious about programming, Ihmels taught him a bit with Logo, using the classic program featuring a turtle. Noam passed some of this intelligence on to Jahli (who turns 7 this year), and Ihmels later overheard Jahli explain startups to a friend: “It’s a place where, for example, people with beards, for example, move turtles on a screen.”

But gradually, his kids–and particularly Noam–have come to understand more about the business, and to appreciate it more (despite its role in delaying purchase of the latest Xbox game). Ihmels recently quizzed Jahli, discovering that she understands that her father makes an application–something like Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds. And Noam has taken such an interest in his father’s work that he recently did a show-and-tell about computers at school. (Noam has also cottoned to business jargon: he recently told Ihmels about an investment, “That valuation is ridiculous!”)

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Most of all, despite the indignities of startup founding at 40, Ihmels is pleased to be modeling to his kids that you can make your own way in the world. “To do the thing you love is a great thing,” he says.

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.

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