While the startup world tends to celebrate 20-something achievers, older founders bring unique talents, social networks, wider perspective and experience to the table
The startup world tends to celebrate 20-somethings and young achievers
Twenty years after he launched his first venture, K. Vaitheeswaran is just as excited to be starting up again. He’s 56 now, and under his belt is the experience of starting the country’s first e-commerce platform, Indiaplaza, struggling with it, failing and emerging stronger, even writing a book about it. Earlier this year, he co-founded dairy beverage brand, Again Drinks, with his Indiaplaza colleague Sandeep Thakran. The learning curve is not as steep this time round, Vaitheeswaran insists.
“Earlier I’d do everything myself. Now, I have realized it’s a lot faster to get young people with the right attitude to do the work. So my job now is that of ‘playing coach’," he says, adding that the 20 years of being part of the startup ecosystem have given him a different perspective. He’s also mentor to a number of startups.
The startup world tends to celebrate 20-somethings and young achievers, but founders over 40 bring unique talents and experience to the table—something investors are also realizing.
The mean founder age for one in 1,000 faster-growing, new ventures, is 45, according to a study published in the Harvard Business Review last year. The study found that in high-tech industries, the average age of founders is in the early 40s, and experience in a specific industry is a big factor in success. Being an older founder does, however, require having to unlearn and relearn.
Sanjiv Singhal was 44 when he started Scripbox, an online investment advisory platform, with two others in 2012. Having experience in the internet and financial sector, he says, helped immensely. His “big lesson" was learning to experiment. “So, we are able to combine experience with experimental approach."
A LEARNING CURVE
For Tina Mani, 47, founder of YFret, an online content recommendation platform, the challenge was to learn about a new industry. Coming from the telecom industry, where she was “one of the first people to build 3G technology in the US", she entered the field of retail in 2011, when it was booming. “Coming from a corporate career, where you are a superstar, the startup experience brings you down to earth. It’s humbling," says Mani, who set up YFret three years ago. The corporate experience helped her set up systems, and build an organizational culture. On the other hand, not having a strong network in retail posed big challenges.
Former journalist Wilma Rodrigues founded Saahas, which promotes waste management, at the age of 52. She believes the experience that older founders have is particularly useful while handling a young team.
Scripbox’s Singhal too believes experience gives older founders an edge, when it comes to hiring younger people as one knows what attributes to look for.
Kevin Houston started Carbon Masters, a UK-India carbon management consultancy, with Som Narayan in 2008 when he was 56. Now 67, and having worked in European and US markets, he says it’s only in India that the startup community is driven by youngsters.
“It’s not the case in the UK and US, where I have seen people my age and maybe slightly younger doing what I did—found a startup," says Houston, who spends five weeks in Bengaluru, where is company’s India office is and two weeks in the UK.
Having bootstrapped the company during the initial phase, Houston, who previously worked with P&G, PwC and IBM, says he’s at an advantage because he has a co-founder “who is old enough to be my son".
This means Houston mentors Narayan because “at some level, I expect to retire." He’s observed that young people want to work for organizations driven by social purpose. “That enthusiasm and clarity of young people excites me," he says.
Sometimes, though, it takes time to get used to dealing with a young workforce in a startup without a hierarchy. “In the corporate world, the age difference between your direct reporting manager and you would be just five or six years. So, it’s a bit of a shock initially when the gap is more than 10 years," says Singhal.
Saahas’ Rodrigues and YFret’s Mani don’t mind the age gap. Rodrigues says young founders tend to rely too much on technology to solve problems. “Tech is only an enabler. It can’t fill all the gaps in your organization. The data that tech generates needs to be carefully sifted, analysed and action taken," she says.
A short attention span is something Mani has observed in her team in their 20s. As a result, “They multitask so much and sometimes don’t finish things completely," she says.
Interacting with young founders and employees has led to personal growth for Vaitheeswaran.
He’s now open to the idea that there is more than one way of growing a business. “It may not be my way but it exists. You need to hire people smarter than you, set clear goals for them, and get out of their way. The last part is very important. That’s something I didn’t do earlier but by taking this approach, you achieve more," he says.
While there is no overt ageism in the Indian startup ecosystem, the spotlight seems to be on younger founders.
Mani recalls an incident from a few years ago.
“Once while talking to an investor, he asked how I was going to take the business forward since I had a family. But the lead investor on the call immediately jumped in and vouched for my commitment," she says.
Vaitheeswaran doesn’t find this surprising. “I am sure the thought crosses their mind, although they may not say it," he says. However, he adds, investors are realizing that an older founder builds a sustainable business.
Rodrigues says older founders tend to build a strong second-rung leadership, which is also important.
Angel investor Sanjay Mehta says, “The ratio of younger to older co-founders in any startup event would be around 80:20. So the pool is small. Also, older co-founders, having years of professional experience, usually have enough funds to bootstrap the venture at the initial stage. They come to VCs for larger fundraising rounds," says Mehta, who is co-founder of 100x.VC and has worked with founders of different ages.
“Unlearning and relearning, especially from the tech side of business, can be challenging. But then again, not every founder can be put in the same box," he says.