Here's a firsthand account of a first-time entrepreneur who not only faced these challenges, but also witnessed others facing similar issues.
Some of the most celebrated companies of our times were founded by young college graduates and drop-outs; however, research quoted in a recent article in The New York Times shows that a majority of founders in USA, particularly of the fastest growing firms were middle-aged.
Turning to India, the founders of Flipkart, Paytm and Ola were in their 20s when they started out. Even the founder of the most enduring Indian startup, Jamsetji Tata was 29 when he built his first venture. Of course, not all Indian entrepreneurs are so young; a survey by a startup incubator, Excubator showed that the median age for starting up in India is 35 for men and 37 for women founders.
Even as many middle-aged people take the plunge into entrepreneurship, they face certain challenges compared to their younger compatriots. As a first-time entrepreneur who started a business at 40, I have experienced some of these ordeals first-hand, and have seen others facing similar issues.
This is not to suggest that everyone would face them, nor that they cannot be overcome; it is an acknowledgement of some realities and the initiation of a discussion on resolutions.
Challenge 1: Financial Pressures
Someone who is 45 years today began one’s career at the end of the nineties, with a starting salary of Rs 3-5 lakhs. With a superb 15% cagr of salary over 20-22 years, current annual income would be Rs 40-80 lakhs per annum. The addiction of salary is that most people have not only designed their expenses to use their current salary but also make investments (usually in real estate and automobiles) based on the present value of future salaries of all earning family members. These illiquid investments create a huge exit barrier. Given the scorching rate at which real estate prices have gone up, those who invested later are locked in for longer.
This is bound to change in future, as inflation and interest rates drop, and the next generation stops investing in assets that reduce their flexibility and mobility. But for the current generation of middle-aged folks, not too many have the luxury of letting go of their assured salaries that are necessary for them to pay for their EMIs, children’s education and other lifestyle expenses.
Challenge 2: Reduced Hunger to Win
At the risk of ageism and generalisation, someone who is in the twenties is more likely to be energetic and determined than a 40+. This is a bit of paradox. Someone who can “afford” to quit one’s job has achieved considerable career progress and financial stability; therefore, the entrepreneurial idea has to be huge enough to create the same hunger that a young person, just setting out on one’s career would have. Other factors that affect this passion could be health (of oneself and parents), the need to spend time with growing children and other family obligations. Remember, most of us have been telling ourselves for the last two decades that we would soon “slow down” our pace.
Age, on the other hand, creates subject matter expertise, people skills and professional networks built over the years. Middle-aged entrepreneurs can focus on their strengths and perhaps, partner with younger co-founder(s) and colleagues who can fill the energy gaps.
Challenge 3: Lack of Technology Expertise
As our careers progress, most of us build expertise in a certain industry or function. A middle-aged professional would tend to start a business in an area of comfort, based on market knowledge or existing relationships. Unfortunately, many lack technological proficiency. Every business, particularly a start-up, has to find ways to use technology to create competitive advantage. Younger entrepreneurs are more likely to have a tech background or they might partner with a batchmate from computer science. Having tech capability helps them build prototypes swiftly and experiment with new tech-enabled business models. For many middle-aged non-tech entrepreneurs, the biggest gap or challenge they face is the absence of a techie co-founder.
Let me share a personal example. My experience and interest in teaching led me to the field of management education with a co-founder who was also from the business domain. Initially, all our corporate workshops were conducted in-person; one day, a client asked us to deliver a program online, due to travel and cost constraints. Creating video lessons was easy but we had no clue about the technologies involved in e-learning; yet, we agreed to find a solution. In spite of us co-founders having no technology expertise, we put together a rudimentary platform to create, host and manage the digital course. Over time, digital learning has become central to our business strategy.
In addition to finding a techie co-founder or hiring a wonderful (but expensive) CTO, middle-aged entrepreneurs have to keep up with (relevant) technology and also dabble with its creation. This is a learning that cannot be put off, whether you are a salaried professional or an entrepreneur.
Challenge 4: Missing Hyperbole
Finally, middle-aged founders have to deal with the hype around young entrepreneurs. Fund-raising opportunities, award ceremonies and PR activities frequently celebrate the hyper ambitions of the young. On the other hand, the 40+, after years of corporate performance appraisals, has been conditioned to propose “achievable” targets. It is not the absence of vision, but the pushbacks of reality that cause them to be pragmatic in their story-telling. For investors and other stakeholders who seek disruption and hockey-stick curves, the middle-aged founder speaking about profitable growth appears boring!
Even as investors begin to balance growth with sustainability, we 40+ founders have to let go of our corporate inhibitions. Painting the big picture of future possibilities can be done without resorting to delusive exaggerations. Pitching is an art to be learnt, not just to woo investors but also colleagues, customers and partners.
These and other challenges that middle-aged entrepreneurs face are real, but we people of the world can take them in our stride. After all, we have age behind us.The author is the founder & CEO of GlobalGyan, an edtech firm that provides learning, mentoring and consulting services to organisations.