Not only are entrepreneurship opportunities fully available to (ahem) older people, but experience and wisdom can be secret weapons in business.
To paraphrase a line in the John Mayer song, “Who Says,” it’s been a long time since 34—which is claimed by some to be the average age of successful startup founders. For me, that awkward age was marked by weekends on the sidelines of soccer games, evenings trying to catch up on endless email, and workdays making one mistake after another. When I was 34, I barely knew what I was doing half the time.
But now, at 60, I do.
In the context of my work as tech entrepreneur leading a security company called TAG Cyber, it’s become evident that a long career is a potent asset. This is especially true for startups like ours selling to large business customers which are often run by sixtysomethings.
So, when we market our cyber research and advisory services—which are designed to disrupt research giant Gartner—we’ve learned that our gray hair often opens doors. Let me make the case.
Experience. When dealing with customers, especially in enterprise companies, it is truly useful to have been there and done that. People my age know intuitively, for example, how to reach out for a meeting because we were the target of such reach-outs for many years. And people my age know how to write a good email—one that doesn’t look like it was copied from a template. We know this because we’ve deleted millions of terrible emails over the years.
Disruption. By the law of averages, if you reach four decades of work experience, then you know what it was like to be disrupted both personally and as a business. And this is never a pleasant experience. So maybe it’s a revenge thing, but people my age who choose to become a disruptor should expect a plate of delicious, unadulterated satisfaction. Going from the hunted to the hunter is as good as it gets.
Stature. Developing stature is only possible with long periods of achievement. And this takes time. Founders without stature will always have trouble connecting with customers of stature. That’s just the math of it. When twentysomething founders ask how they can meet the head of a big bank or the senior partner of a major firm, perhaps they should be directed to approach their grandparents for help.
Purpose. Most young people become entrepreneurs because they want to become rich. For sixtysomethings, this is not the goal. Instead, older founders become entrepreneurs because they want purpose. And we all know that the best purpose involves serving others. Take a moment and ponder that one. Serving others is what successful business is all about—and sometimes it takes a lifetime to figure that out.
And now a word to those of you moaning under your breath that old geezers can’t start businesses that appeal to younger people. Recognize that Reed Hastings still runs Netflix, an obsession among viewers of every age group. He is 61 years old. The late S. Truett Cathy drove Chick-Fil-A, a feeding obsession for Gen-Z eaters, to great heights during his 70s and 80s.
And Apple, the backbone of so many young people’s computing lifestyle, is run by a CEO who is (yes, you guessed it) 61 years old.
There are certainly differences between doing a startup and being a senior executive at an established company, but there are also many similarities. Both require discipline, vision, and the ability to lead people. And more than anything else, both require (at least if the goal is to be successful) an obsession with serving customers.
So, enough with the conventional wisdom that startups are for young people. In fact, I think investors should stop asking founders for their value proposition or their unfair competitive advantage. Perhaps a better approach would be to ask about experience, judgment, and battle-tested expertise.
In such cases, it seems likely that the advantage will shift to older founders.
Edward Amoroso is founder and CEO at TAG Cyber, research professor at NYU, and the former senior VP and chief security officer at AT&T.