Move Over, Millennials
In many ways, Steven Asherman is not particularly different from the other technology-startup founders working at the NYU-Poly Varick Street incubator in downtown Manhattan. Like his colleagues, Asherman spends his days focused on launching a Web 2.0 company, in his case Content Galaxy, which aims to create online channels for publishing videos and print material. But there’s one notable difference between Asherman and the rest of the pack. At 62, he’s a good 30 to 35 years older than most of his comrades.
Starting an Internet company amid a sea of twenty-somethings hasn’t put a crimp in Asherman’s style. On the whole, working with younger people has been more of a boon than a problem.
He garnered invaluable information about such areas as social media and streaming video, for example, while offering his insights to younger colleagues gained from his years heading another company, Base One International, a software-as-a- service consulting firm he founded in 1993 and still runs. Base One International has “$1 million to $3 million” in revenue and seven employees who also work for Content Galaxy.
“There’s a give-and-take,” said Asherman, whose four-year-old company is still “pre-revenue. … I’ve learned about things I knew nothing about before.”
When many people envision digital startups, they think of young, would-be Mark Zuckerbergs in hoodies and T-shirts spending late nights coding at a company with a name that’s missing a vowel. There is, however, a small but growing number of over-forties trying their hand at Web 2.0 entrepreneurship. And, like Asherman, they’re finding that, on the whole, their age, experience and existing relationships provide some distinct benefits.
Recent studies from the entrepreneurially focused Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation showed that people over 55 were almost twice as likely to launch successful companies as those between 20 and 34.
“That wisdom thing isn’t something that comes with being a twenty-something,” said Brian Cohen, the 57-year-old chairman of New York Angels, who recently co-founded Launch.it, a start-up that provides a self-publishing platform for new products.
Nonetheless, older founders face certain barriers. For one thing, they may not be technically up to speed.
Most important, according to Cohen, is an unfamiliarity with the language of the Web 2.0 world. “It’s not just the technology itself; it’s the vernacular,” Cohen said. “They feel uncomfortable engaging in a conversation.”
They also may have more family and financial obligations than younger colleagues. And, in some cases, being in very different stages of life may make it difficult to relate.
David Bloom, 40, a co-founder of Ordr.in, a two-year-old company that sells restaurant e-commerce software, took part in venture accelerator TechStars’ program a year ago and once confided in a twenty-something comrade how much he missed his then-two-year-old daughter and infant son.
“He told me how much he missed his cat,” said Bloom, whose company has “less than $1 million” in revenue.
Older founders without previous programming knowledge tend to find ways around those problems. Take Craig Danuloff. A serial entrepreneur, the 49-year-old launched Rewind.Me, which provides a platform for digital personal data aggregation on the Web, about six months ago. For the first 90 days of development, Danuloff hired an independent contractor to produce a prototype aimed at creating a front end for the system.
“Even if you’re not a technical person, it’s easy to tell if the user interface looks the way you want it to,” said Danuloff, whose company has seven employees and doesn’t yet generate revenue.
Danuloff knew, however, that he would require more sophisticated technical expertise. To that end, early this year he did something common to many start-ups founded by entrepreneurs of all ages without state-of-the-art computer skills: He hired a chief technology officer who could supervise development of the more complex back end of the system.
As for addressing family responsibilities, Bloom consciously created an organizational culture in which he and his five employees generally start work at about 9 a.m., well before the other two start-ups he shares space with begin the day. He often leaves at 5 p.m. or so, to be able to spend the evening with his children before they go to sleep.
“I have to be a bit ruthless with my prioritization of my time,” he said.
He is sparing in his attendance at outside events, such as technology meetups or appearances on panels. “If I didn’t have a family, I would go to a lot more. I take a rifle approach, not a shotgun approach, to my activities.”
In other areas, over-40 entrepreneurs may have an edge. For example, those who build companies in industries where they are veterans often have existing contacts they can tap as potential customers, as well as a seasoned understanding of how the market works.
Serge Loncar, 47, started Care-Speak Communications six years ago when he was an executive in the health care industry, a sector where he’d spent much of his career. He ran his business, which has a technology for turning mobile phones into disease-management tools, on the side until a year ago, when he left his job to run it full time.
Loncar says his many years in the health care business have provided him valuable entrée to contacts, as well as a useful conversation starter.
“I always find myself talking about people we know in common,” said Loncar, whose company has three employees and is profitable. “It definitely opens doors.”
For Asherman, a history designing software systems has also helped in another area: judging how long a particular project will take.
The result: He tends to stay on schedule. “That’s a place,” he said, “where there’s no substitute for experience.”