Friday, April 15, 2011

The age advantage

ArmageddonI always tell my classes at Cambridge that they have all of the knowledge and ability to succeed with their business ideas.  Their lack of self-confidence sometimes surprises me: a year of consulting, perhaps, or an internship to learn how things work, but then they never get back to taking a chance with their own ideas.  They have the energy, enthusiasm, ideas, and creativity to make it on their own, now.

Still, entrepreneurship is an unforgiving career choice, and many fall by the wayside (over 90% within two years).   While some fail because they are under-funded, too focused on the product instead of the need, or fail to gather the right organization.  Others might question whether age is a factor: mature workers lack the energy and flexibility, are unwilling to make the sacrifices, that it takes to succeed.

To which I counter, Bruce Willis.

I’m thinking most of his incarnation in Armageddon or RED, where Willis gathers his old gang together and saves the day.  The Age Advantage is that he knows people and, together, they know how to get things done.

Some call it cunning, but I think it’s just experience: true in real-life as in film-life.

A company called me to build a medical software component.  I understood the problem; I’ve built similar things a few times before.  Time was tight, so I called up some ex-colleagues to ask for help, they brought data, algorithms, and papers.  Everyone knows one another from prior job, so roles and communications are well established.  The design and regulatory frameworks are familiar; computer languages and research skills ingrained.

We shook hands; we got down to work.

Red MovieThere is tremendous power in having that knowledge and network, the declarative and procedural skills that come with long experience together.  Similarly in starting a business: I know when an accountant is giving me a line and which lab might do a quick experiment.  It moves a job ahead quickly and confidently and, although things may get done rough, things get done right.

How relevant, then, are my war stories for young people starting out?  I’m wondering whether  I did it; you can do it! advice is completely wrong-headed.  I’m backed by decades of practical experience, well-placed connections, and a fat severance check.  They have naïve energy, enthusiasm, ideas, creativity.  Who’s more likely to succeed?

Maybe the right solution is in partnership – include a few grey-hairs in the team. It’s not enough to enlist them as Board non-exec’s, they need them as operational resources.

They need to get the gang together and get the job done.

They need ‘Bruce.

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