To the Tune of Whitesnake: Here I Go Again, please

Most of my posts have been on general or technical business matters. This one is far more personal. If you react badly to middle aged men discussing their life thoughts, now would be good time to stop reading. However, if you are, like me, a little past 35 and wondering what to do with your life, I hope you will find some wisdom below to take with you.

One reaches an age, eventually, when there is no escaping the reality that, numerically at least, one is more that half way through one’s life. The blow is only softened a little by friends who apply rather dubious mathematics to come to the conclusion that you are not /quite/ half way through your adult life. They usually spout this after the second bottle of wine, when all reason and logic have long been dissolved in a wash of ethanol. With reason and logic now gone, all my friends are left with is empathy and emotion. Their statements are well intentioned, and well received, but there is no escaping the reality that, at 46, I’m more than half way through my life (give or take statistical errors). Given the very real statistical chances of serious illness, dementia or senility, that probably means that I have around 20 physically and intellectually active years left as a businessperson, with a potential twilight of another 10 years after that.

All this logic leaves me strangely unmoved. I say unmoved, because I was born with, and have carefully nurtured, the crippling disability of optimism. In my head, everything will get better, it will turn out well and while there may be reasons to plan carefully and proceed with caution, there are no reasons to fret or be miserable. Being marginally over-blessed with seratonin, dopamine and oxytoxin, I am incapable of being anything other than positive about the future. (Those of you lacking the same amounts of these lovely little psychoactive brain chemicals will currently be enjoying feelings of persecution, nebulous anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorders and perhaps panic over the long chemical words. I wish I was more like you, sometimes, as evidence shows you make fewer mistakes).

Unmoved, but not unmotivated. The realisation of age, mortality and missed opportunities has filled me with the urge to create a new business. I consider myself blessed in that I have built up a huge knowledge base of how technology businesses really operate in start up mode, on top of a wonderful network of entrepreneur, investor and promoter friends. A lot of that knowledge was bought at huge personal and financial costs. My friends and family paid some of it for.  Some of it was fair coin for my own failings, ignorance and arrogance. What ever the cause or cost, the realisation that I have a limited time to use it has created a solid drive to use it well.

Which is why I was delighted to read Doug Richards’ piece which claimed, with some evidence, that some of the best entrepreneurs are silver haired 50 year olds. Well, in that case, as a slightly balding 46 year old, I have a good run up to reach that level of skill. Age is not – and should not be  – a bar to entrepreneurialism.

As a small diversion, I could list some reasons why age (too much or too little) might be a bar to some forms of entrepreneurialism. For instance, are you sufficiently close in age to your target customers that you genuinely empathise with their needs? Or maybe you simply lack the physical stamina to go out clubbing all night with the incandescent youth that inhabit SWSXi, the tech scene in Silicon Valley, or the ‘Shoreditch Mafiya’? Perhaps you have not yet understood the financial needs of your targets? So, in many cases there might be reasons why age is a factor, but not in all cases, and in any case it is a simple matter to hire someone of the right age to work alongside you.

In my case, my wife insists that I am really a 46-year-old, overweight, balding 17 year old. There is much truth in what she says, and I respect her view. Sadly, it does not help me with thinking about age, mortality and business life. What age range should I aim a product at, given that what she says may be true?

The lesson I take away from what Doug says and what my wife says is, you may be pleased to read, quite simple: use the experience of business you have and couple it to an enthusiasm for products for young adults, and combine the best of both.

Oddly, that is how I got into entertainment software in the first place. Combining a love of computer games and my financial training. Coming out of 13 years as a chartered accountant, I jumped straight into running a computer games developer, back at the turn of the millennium. Critically applauded (we held Warcraft off the top review slots for over a year), we did not enjoy massive commercial success or riches. Publishers went bust, or simply withheld money, or cancelled projects with no notice. It was a fun ride, full of learning, but not great business. Our games went on to even more success on their second release in 2007, including a #1 slot, showing that we must have been doing something right in product design and development, even if our commercials needed more work back in 2003/2004.

Brief periods in India, Europe and more time in start ups in London, with a fair mix of success and failure exposed me to the whole gamut of start up life: from bedroom prototyping to profitable sale, from multi-million dollar financing to corporate insolvency, from major sales deals to founder succession, from the nicest angels you could hope to meet to vile frauds committed by others on founders and investors.  It has been a journey that is for sure.

So, now, at 46, it is both timely and seemly that I take all the learning from that journey and pour it into something new. I can’t really help it. As much as the “sensible choice” is to get a “proper job” with 1/20th pension rights, the personal reality is that I want to start another company, I enjoy starting companies, and I finally think I have the full skill set to do so.

It is easier now, than it was when I was younger, to determine what a good business is. (Indeed I have provided simple checklists for you on this blog here [link] before). The most important one is that cash burn to profitability should be as small as possible or positive. That is, a good business is one that makes money as fast as possible, on as little cash as possible, and preferably can be bootstrapped.  I’ve read VC’s saying that ‘bootstrapped means cheap and cannot scale’, but I challenge them to find evidence that that is so. (There is a small cynical part of me that says ‘bootstrapped means a VC cannot get the leverage over the founders that they would enjoy if they advanced $10m against an idea’, but we can let that ride for now. This is not about them.)

Bootstrapping is a wonderful filter, testing ground, proof of concept and just about the best fun you can ever have. The day you realise you made $1 more than you spent is just about the most personally fulfilling day of anyone’s life. It means that you got it right: customer, market, product, service, production, distribution and price. It may not mean that the same methods of sales, service, production or distribution will scale up, but it does mean that the product met the customer and the customer liked it. You can fix the scale issues with money. You cannot fix the customer / product fit with anything less than absolute focus, dedication and empathy. And focus, dedication and empathy are three things that bootstrapping really encourages.

Does that mean I no longer care whether a business is traditionally ‘fundable’? Of course I still care. There is a very high likelihood that any business will need external funds in the medium or short term to expand, develop or improve. I’ll probably seek external finance for any business, and not just to expand, develop or improve, but also because the mere act of pitching a business to knowledgeable investors provides amazingly important feedback and has real PR value.  The difference this time is that I will seek that finance and feedback from a position of far greater strength, and with far more understanding of my customers and my products. The act of bootstrapping also makes you look really hard at the metrics that drive growth, and forces you to take hard choices between options that both seem attractive. All of those make seeking finance a much more productive and pleasant experience.

The whole topic of feedback is actually what pointed me back into start-ups after nearly 18 months out of actually running one. I’ve been mentoring six or so start ups for many years, often overlapping with my ‘day job’ as CEO of whatever start up I was in. I really enjoy mentoring. Some (who know me well), might say it is because I am immensely self-ish and adore being in the role of authority. Others (who know me better), will say that it is because I am ridiculously generous toward others with my time, and simply cannot help wanting to help people succeed. That drive has also helped me chose a career as an Explorer Scout leader, providing mentoring, leadership and bus driving skills to young people aged 14 to 18 (a topic for another day, perhaps). Those start ups have shown me a start truth about success: it requires a strong mixture of :

1. Brilliant ideas based on deep knowledge of the customers’ needs and desires;
2. Timing;
3. Teamwork supporting the business;
4. Ruthless and constant improvement;
5. Sustained hard work; and
6. Luck.

I might admit, in moments of weakness, that large quantities of money can sometimes substitute for one (and only one) of the above factors, and that the blind luck of being an ‘Outlier’ (in the terms of the well read book by Malcolm Gladwell [link] can provide an additional advantage. However, all six things need to be present just to get on the launch pad for a new business. And all six things are best nurtured in a bootstrap, where the Founder(s) antennae are exquisitely sensitive to the incoming signals from the market, unfiltered by the deadening layers of formal marketing, PR and clouds of ‘yes people’ that larger funded companies tend to acquire.

I probably ought to note that there are several times when all those things have come together and I have failed to act on it, but that is another post entirely.

If I had to pick one of those factors it would be teamwork. A good team is immediately obvious, almost psychically aligned with each other and yet full of robust challenge and serious debate. While I have seen some brilliant young teams, it has occurred to me that older entrepreneurs tend to form better teams. They simply have more life experience, a wider network and (I suspect) a lower tolerance for freeloaders, fools and fanatics. Older people select their teams better, in my experience.

Older entrepreneurs also give and receive feedback better, in that they consider it fairly and act on it. Perhaps the old saw of truth coming  ‘out of the mouths of babes’ should be extended to ‘out of the mouths of babes and the seriously experienced entrepreneur’. Given a decade or two of experience, entrepreneurs tend to fall back on simpler language, spades get called spades, yet no lasting affront is taken and things begin to move forward faster, once the cloud of obfuscatory language has been blown away. I’m not sure that ‘plain speaking’ is a natural function of the aging brain, or whether it is born of wide life experience, but it is a real factor in the success of new businesses.

That plainness makes teamwork easier, removes misunderstandings, and encourages people to look out for each other and ‘make the save’ before things go seriously wrong. Forming a plain talking team, with real experience and great teamwork should be the Founders first role.

You might have noticed that I started off talking about me, and have wandered into the third person plural. The reason for that is that age has taught me that I cannot do it alone. In fact, despite the mad enthusiasm of youth, I never could.  That extends to all startups: get a team, even an unpaid circle of associates to test ideas on is always going to outperform a solo act. No one person has all the necessary skills to run a business, grow the business, sell the product and deal with the money; at least not once a business has grown past the “crafts-person” stage.

Mentoring, aside from revealing what makes a good team, has also given me strong feedback. It might be said that success is a poor teacher, and that failure teaches more lessons, better. Working with a number of businesses, even 1 day a month, provides immediate and strong feedback, as well as growing a supportive network from which to draw other resources.

Part of that feedback from the companies I mentor has been ‘why don’t you start something again?’ The natural tendency to assume ‘those who can, do; those who can’t, teach’ may be at work here, I admit, but I like to think that they saw me as someone who could and should be an entrepreneur, and that they were slightly perplexed that I was not as passionate about a start up of my own as they were about theirs.

Alongside the friendly enquiries from my network (all rather nice ways to stroke my ego, but not really hard evidence), I have also recently indulged myself in a day or three of online psychometric testing and assessment. It came as not real surprise to anyone I know that every test reinforced what my HR counsellor at Deloitte said in 1999: “you are and should be an entrepreneur. Unless you are actively creating and driving things forward, you will never be fulfilled or content.” Sometimes lessons take a very long time to sink in.

Which brings me to today.

Today, up here, reclined on clever coach at 38,000 feet above the Atlantic, I have a chance to look down and back over the experience, friends, mentoring, and the thorny issue of age with some detachment. There is time to reflect, and time to consider.

What looking down and back is showing me is that it is time to look up, and forward. Being 40+ is a not a bar to entrepreneurial success, rather it is a solid platform from which to create something really new.  The cult of youth may sell papers and get blog readers, but there is no substitute for personal experience paid for in the hard school of business. Bootstrapping the main parts is the way to see the truth of the business. I’m not going to do it alone, I need to work in a great team. That team will have a mix of age and experience, as the team is far greater than the sum of the parts. Everyone in that team will talk plainly and work to enlarge the success of the group. When we can show that money will make profitable difference, then, and only then, will we go raise some.  

Well, that is quite enough about me. What about you?

The thing is that times have changed. Hop back to that list of six factors above. Timing, not just the art of comedy, but the seedbed on which businesses are sown. The serious point here is that times have changed. There has been a huge change in the culture of business, and there are now really amazing resources available to anyone who wants to start a business. Let’s just take a look at the sort of things that are in place for budding entrepreneurs for a while.

Time has provided us with the most valuable resources of all: condensed and filtered relevant information accessible to all. No matter where you live, you can get the information required to start a business and do well at it.

1. Training and mentoring websites (link to SMARTA and Doug Richards and HSBC and Business Link).
2. Thinking bigger, perhaps internationally? (links to start up resources in [USA] and Europe are pretty easy to Google)

Worried about the money? Twenty years ago you needed to go through an intermediary. Your accountant or lawyer would have a little black book, and they would gently guide you towards investors. That assumed you already had an advisor, which sort of ruled out about 80% of entrepreneurs. Perhaps you had one or two wealthy friends, and they would have given you a leg up. And that requirement restricted entrepreneurial success to a tiny minority of people who were already associated with wealth, or had the drive to get them into the local golf club.

Now you simply go online and find not only who might invest, but what they like, what else they have invested in and you can be introduced

1. Links to investment groups of angels, VCs and Banks are very well advertised and easy to find
2. Links to US and EU investor sites are no more difficult

If you are worried about whether your idea is good enough, you can test it out in the hardest, most rigorous quality assurance system in the world: the tech start up networking scene:

1. Links to great UK networking sites like Mashup  – opensohoopencoffee – , etc etc]
2. Links to techcrunch events
3. following a few entrepreneurs on Twitter and arranging to meet them works too!

You can get to their events locally or nationally and you will find that you are not alone and that there are thousands of people ready to help, advise, or just laugh at your idea.

Every entrepreneur (even the most relaxed and optimistic) lies awake at night worrying that someone else has already invented it, or worse, is already successful at it. There is no need to fret now, as a simple Google search, or dip through start up sites can quickly spot similar startups.  Heck, you can even dig through patents online now at the EPO; and anyone who to do that 20 years ago will be able to tell you that it was a matter for serious professionals.

Worried that you won’t make money? You can check the accounts of similar UK companies or US companies in related areas online, for pennies, and analyse them, compare them and read detailed reasoning from professional analysts that will explain how they work

There are, to be short, amazing, brilliant and priceless resources for anyone who want to start a business. Those resources are, paradoxically, perfectly designed for the person in their <kof> 40’s who have the time, experience and motivation to make the most of them.

If you are under 25 you probably stopped reading in paragraph two. Anyone who has read this far is probably over 40 and / or is really nervous about starting their own business. If that is you, my advice is to give it a try.

Is this an age thing? For me, yes; but those resources are there for everyone, and everyone can make the most of them, whatever their age. All you really need is those six things sorted out and off you go.

Me, I’ve got four or five of them sorted out. If I can find the sixth, then, game on. I’ll be taking those to the next set of checklists and building up a business with a new team. If not, it will be back to the drawing board, back to the network, and back to the beginning.

You see, there is a the secret, seventh factor that age brings you, to add to the six above: a massive ability to bounce back from things that appear to block progress, and the experience to see what won’t work, and to change things so they do.

Here is to entrepreneurs, all of you, whatever your age. You make it all work. You might be half-way through your life, or just starting it, but you can make something really important in just three years, and that business may well go on to outlive you, making money and a real difference to the world for many years. That is what provides motivation, whatever your age.

Now let’s all go start something.

1 Comment

  1. Hi cousin,
    three thoughts:
    – keep up the optimism;
    – go for it;
    – but remember, you can't take it with you!


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