Tuesday, October 27, 2015

unConference 2015 Session: Mid Life Entrepreneurs

By Ken Lynch, Jones & Company, @jones_mktg

This MassTLC Innovation2015 unConference session drew a small, but highly engaged crowd.  From a personal perspective, the topic resonated because I am a mid-life entrepreneur myself.  From a conference attendee and blogger’s perspective, this was topic I hadn’t seen covered at other events throughout the great entrepreneurial environment and startup scene that is Boston.

Rob Kornblum (@rkorny) was the perfect facilitator for this session.  As a business leader and investor he is among those of us with…ahem…decades of experience.  It was apparent that everyone in the room was familiar with the life of an entrepreneur, either having been one at some point in their careers or interacting with the many incubators and accelerator programs throughout the greater Boston area as a mentor, advisor, or program leader.

To kick off the session, we were challenged to think about what it takes to be an entrepreneur, the differences between young and “experienced” entrepreneurs, and what support systems are (or more precisely should be) in place for mid-life entrepreneurs.

Those of us with a minimum of twenty years work experience found it striking how young founders today (our peer CEOs in their 20s) do things differently from how we did them as young entrepreneurs, and certainly in stark contrast to our experiences within established businesses.  Everything from work environments to recruiting practices seems to have changed dramatically either through technology advancements or cultural shifts. 

One of the primary discussion topics was the difference in the support systems that are available to young company founders versus those available to the mid-life entrepreneur.  Not surprisingly, Boston produces great student entrepreneurs through some of the nation’s top educational institutions and supports them with a tremendous access to workspaces, networks, and capital.  Most of this support structure is city-centered, with Boston being a vibrant hub for entrepreneurship.

But for a mid-life founder the story can be quite different.  We find ourselves asking where the most legitimate place to build a company is, given that we most likely live in the suburbs.  We often have to balance more family commitments with work time.  We may have to take on more of a financial risk.  And, we may find investors telling us that we don’t look like their last startup founder!

Despite these challenges, it was very interesting to learn that research conducted by the Kauffman Foundation and others report that the average entrepreneur is 40 when they launch their startup, people over 55 are twice as likely as people under 35 to launch a high-growth startup, and the average age of a successful startup with over $1 million in revenues was 39.  The bottom line?  Age is less of a driver to entrepreneurial success than previous startup and industry experience.  That’s right.  Older founders bring significant assets in the form of personal experiences, business skills, and experiences with challenges that may seem insurmountable to a first time founder.

The conversation shifted back to topics on the Boston startup infrastructure, how we could expand the way most people think about innovation and entrepreneurship in general, and what could be done to better support the mid-life entrepreneur.

We discussed the possible expansion of existing mentor programs to companies beyond the incubator stage – be it venue based or in some other consultative fashion. 

The Boston public transportation system became a hot button topic.  With innovation centers spread throughout the city, it can be very time consuming and unproductive to try to visit more than one in a day.  Heck, there isn’t even a direct connection between North and South Stations.  Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to get from the Cambridge Innovation Center to MassChallenge in less than an hour and with fewer than three connections!

Finally, we discussed the creation of networking groups that included both mid-life entrepreneurs and our younger counterparts.  Events, curated communities, and in person and online meetups were all introduced into the conversation.

So where do we take this?  A good jumping off point may be reading our track facilitator Rob Kornblum’s book about mid-career entrepreneurship – soon to be found in a bookstore near you (my plug, not his)!

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