Innovation can happen at any age despite what the stereotype might suggest. Dressed in a designer T-shirt and jeans, a monochromatic open hoodie and plain-looking but very expensive runners. You’re probably thinking of founders like Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey — people who created massively successful social networks in their 20s.
But those stereotypes fly in the face of reality. A look at the AFR’s Young Rich List might give the impression that creating a successful startup is reserved for millennials and the earliest members of Generation Z, but a look at a broader cross-section of data reveals a different truth.
Research from the United States’ National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) found that “successful entrepreneurs are middle-aged, not young”.
When Kathryn Van Kuyk, my co-founder at Media-Wize, and I meet with the founders and leaders of startups and fast-growth companies, we see the difference experience makes. Generation X — don’t call us middle-aged entrepreneurs or even worse seniorpreneurs — are often the forgotten cohort of the business world. And it is this cohort that the NBER research found represents the most successful businesses.
After decades of gathering experience and working to scale and growing businesses for other people, Gen X are now leaping into founding businesses in increasing numbers. Perhaps we’re keen to trial what works and what doesn’t. Or perhaps unlike the young ones we value the experience that years of dedication to our craft brings. We don’t rush, we want to get it right and we know when we’ve had a seriously good idea.
On the eve of my 50th birthday and when Kathryn was 43, we decided to start our business. We come from the warring factions of journalism and public relations. A co-founder means I share the risk, have someone who challenges me and makes me see things through a very different lens. But what we wanted to create with Media-Wize was a partnership that lets us be who we are and approach problems differently.
Think about Apple. The two co-founders, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, had very different visions of the company. The engineer saw a hobbyist’s computer. The visionary marketer saw a new world order. They were completely different but complementary. One focused on creating great products, the other on changing the way we live and work.
I see the journalist’s perspective but I’m always optimistic that everything we do will work perfectly. My co-founder is the realist in our team – gently making me stop and think before I jump too far ahead. The partnership works because of the way our jigsaw puzzle of skills and experience fits together.
As Gen X founders, we’ve all been through a lot. We were the first generation raised in families where both parents worked. As so-called ‘latch-key children’ we were taught independence from an early age. We survived the ‘recession we had to have’, the dot-com boom and bust of the 1990s, the GFC and many other major disruptions.
In the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s Gen X that will lead the way. The experience of not just surviving but thriving in the aftermath of major events is why this group is able to succeed in business where millennials and Gen Z fail.
It’s not just about resilience. Experience gives perspective and the ability to better understand what’s next. When a 40-something entrepreneur is faced with adversity, they’re able to look ahead and see what opportunities might be coming. And that experience also means that some of the hard lessons learned in the past can help make better decisions.
Whether you’re a founder looking for mentors, co-founders or staff, you want to complement your experience and expertise, not mirror it. Data doesn’t lie. While 20 to 30-something founders might garner lots of headlines and have their own rich list, more successful entrepreneurs have some creases around their eyes and a few grey hairs.
And while Zuckerberg is still just 36, he has hired people with more experience to support him. It’s arguable that a great deal of Facebook’s success has come from the people Zuckerberg has hired. A look at Facebook’s executive team and board of directors reveals more than a healthy smattering of experience and diversity.
If you didn’t have your big idea when you were in your 20s and instead it happens when you’re 60, don’t let that stop you! Your experience gives you a huge advantage. You have seen what works and importantly what doesn’t. You have the perspective of coming out of some very challenging times and know that you can do more than just survive.