Lessons from an Older Entrepreneur

by Jeff Weiss

I am dealing with a number of start-ups today which is fun and invigorating.  Many of these entrepreneurs are 20-30 years younger than me and I love the energy that they bring. It is contagious! Yet, despite their enthusiasm, their lack of experience often means they are missing the practical experience and professional wisdom that are critical when starting your own business.

An article in The Harvard Business Review found that the average age of people who founded the highest growth start-ups was 45.  Quoting directly from the article: “evidence points to entrepreneurial performance rising sharply with age before cresting in the late fifties. If you were faced with two entrepreneurs and knew nothing about them besides their age, you would do better, on average, betting on the older one.”

I spent the first part of my career working in the corporate world working for some large international companies including Pepsi, Gillette and Sprint.  I then spent close to 20 years with my partner running the PR business she started back in 1989.  But it wasn’t until I was 53 that I took the leap and started my own business, Age of Majority. My baby, my vision and my passion. And no one to blame but myself if the business failed.

My son, Asher, is 25 and has been working full-time for the past three years. He has had great jobs in fabulous organizations and would likely have been on the fast-track for any organization that he has worked.  But he is a true entrepreneur (who started his first business when he was only eight) who is leaving his full-time (paid) job to focus all of his time and energy on a new and exciting start-up venture.

As I watch Asher turn his full attention to his new business, I can’t help but notice that he is dealing with many of the same challenges that I dealt with (and in some cases am still dealing with) when I started Age of Majority. And as I help him navigate his way through the challenges he is facing as a start-up, I thought it would be helpful for him and other young entrepreneurs to offer some advice from a seasoned veteran like myself.

To that end, here are 10 tips or pieces of advice for young entrepreneurs to help them navigate their start-up journeys:

  1. Temper your expectations — While “build it and they will come” might work for the odd start-up, chances are that there is no one lining up right now to buy what you are selling. It is likely going to take longer than you think before you hit your stride so set expectations accordingly. As an eternal optimist, this was a tough lesson for me to learn.
  2. See the path to get to your vision — I am a big believer in the power of having a meaningful and motivating vision as you can’t get to where you are going without knowing the destination. My advice is to start with your longer-term vision and articulate that in a document you can always refer back to. Then start working backwards to see what needs to be done within what timeframe to meet that vision.
  3. Do the math! — “How do we make money? Volume!” (Admittedly this reference will only mean something to Saturday Night Live fans). Before falling too much in love with your concept, run the financials. How is this business going to make money and how realistic are your assumptions that are driving these numbers?  Unfortunately, hopes and prayers don’t put money on the table.
  4. Find the right partners and advisors — Connecting with the right individuals who can add value along the way is critical to success. Determine what areas you need support in and find people who can bring relevant expertise and a realistic view of the world.
  5. Competition is everywhere, so don’t get discouraged — What if Burger King and Under Armour threw in the towel because McDonald’s or Adidas were just too big? You are always going to have competitors, especially if you are successful. Follow and learn from what they are doing and adjust accordingly. It’s just business!
  6. Make “pivoting” your middle name — You are going to learn new things every day and what ends up working might look very different from where you started. Don’t fall in love with your own PR — listen, learn and pivot — always!
  7. Positioning is key — If I could only give one piece of advice to any business in any category, it would be to nail your positioning. I think it is the toughest exercise in business and I would hazard to say that most brands (start-ups and existing organizations) fail to have this figured out. To me this means having a point of difference that is meaningful and relevant to a clearly defined target market (that is based on needs and desires) and that will compel them to select you over your identified competitors. It sounds simple but is extremely difficult to nail.
  8. Build to succeed, not to sell — It’s easy to get caught up and excited about the start-ups and unicorns that sell for incredible amounts of money. Unfortunately, we don’t hear about the thousands of other start-ups that fail without ever making a cent. If you build and deliver a product that people want, you will succeed. And then potential buyers will come knocking.
  9. Always come back to the customer need — What does your target customer want and need and what solutions can you deliver to meet those needs, while enabling you to make money? Needs are constantly changing and it is critical to stay on top of customer wants in relation to your product offerings.
  10. Ride the roller coaster — Trust me when I tell you that there will be great days when you are on top of the world and other days when you wonder what the heck you are doing (and if you made the right choice in starting the business to begin with). I think it is okay to relish those great moments as there are few highs in life that can deliver that rush. But on those days when nothing seems to be going right, take a deep breath and put it all in perspective. You will constantly face challenges and roadblocks and you need to be emotionally ready to tackle them when they come.

Although I wrote this blog primarily for my son, I like to think that it is applicable to start-ups in any lines of business.  If your venture happens to be focused on targeting and engaging older active consumers, we might be a good resource and partner to help you work through some of the items I noted above. Feel free to contact me if you ever want to chat.

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