Not long ago, neurologist Oliver Sacks, musing about turning 80 in The New York Times, said getting older "is not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective." Unfortunately, this is not how society generally views those in their twilight years. Eastern cultures revere their elders. Our Western culture, however, is more inclined toward ageism. We tend to view those who are older as yesterday's people, and we are more predisposed to shoulder them off the stage. The regrettable thing is that these individuals have the most to offer in their last act—their intellect is unwrinkled.
The "enlargement of mental life" encompasses many aspects. For one, those who have been on the long path in business have learned to foresee and walk around stumbling blocks. They know the shortcuts that come from experience. Above all, they understand the true meaning of ego-transcendence—that feeling that we are now beyond concern with the self and able to perceive reality with greater objectivity and less egocentric bias. The list of age advantages is long—these business veterans have a lot to offer if we are willing to reach out and take it. This is especially important for young entrepreneurs who can benefit immensely from rubbing shoulders with older entrepreneurs.
There is a misconception that most startups are formed by young entrepreneurs in their 20s and 30s. A study by the Kauffman Foundation, a research think tank on entrepreneurship, found that the highest rate of startups formed in the past decade was in the 55- to 64-year-old group. What's more, the Kauffman Firm Survey, a longitudinal study of around 5,000 startups formed in 2004, shows firms that survived the financial crisis of 2008 had principal owners who were much more likely to be older than age 45. Over 60 percent of the companies who survived were led by entrepreneurs in the 45-and-up age group. The study reports that previous industry or startup experience had less impact on the company's survival than did the owner's age.
Age does have its privileges. Some smart law firms, for example, know the value of having an elderly, retired judge in their mix—an individual who is a repository of knowledge and wisdom acquired on the bench. They know that harvesting this resource will accelerate the development of younger lawyers. What can young entrepreneurs, those who are at the beginning of their journey, learn from those who are at their journey's end? Here are five lessons from the field:
Long-term planning pays. Those who have been in business for a long time know that "hurry and repent later" is not the way to go—whether in marriage or business. Sometimes entrepreneurs fall in love with their idea and rush to start a company, without having taken the time to do any long-range planning for the survival of the company. They are influenced by the glamour of those larger-than-life serial entrepreneurs who flipped companies and made millions of dollars. The reality is that these are the exceptions rather than the norm. Young entrepreneurs can learn a lot from successful older entrepreneurs who built businesses to last. Apart from thoughtful planning, these stalwart veterans have combined hard work with the fortitude it takes to take a company through its various stages—they didn't set out with the mindset of having an "overnight success." Building something of value requires patience—the patience to nurture a business and watch it grow.
Sales and marketing are animals of a different stripe. Sales and marketing are two distinct business disciplines. Simply put, marketing is about identifying target market segments, researching what customers want and how much they will pay for it, and creating awareness of your product and services that fill that demand. Sales is about converting leads and prospects into actual contracts or shipments. It's about creating customers and keeping those customers. Many entrepreneurs wear both hats and lump the two activities into one. They don't realize until perhaps a few years later that they needed to have paid equal attention to both disciplines. Marketing and sales demand a different skill set. A new entrepreneur may be good in one but fail in the other. A seasoned entrepreneur can bolster your potential weakness in this area.
What's more, the alluring concept that "if you build it, they will come" may be good for baseball, but doesn't hold true in business. It's not uncommon for a solo entrepreneur, for example, to start an online business by creating a website that clearly explains the company's products and services, write compelling blog articles and even take up expensive advertising in some publications, and completely miss the importance of SEO in driving traffic. It's an important lesson in marketing that business owners who are not well-versed in technology may miss.
Less is definitely more. A regret often mentioned by entrepreneurs is that they set out in too many directions, bringing too much complexity into their budding companies. Having surplus energy is a mark of youth. As a young entrepreneur, your drive to accomplish is on steroids, and this can get you to have too many pots on the stove. Know what you're good at, what sells and what can endure, and leave the rest on the back burner. Older entrepreneurs know that you can burn your fingers in business if you don't keep your priorities straight. Diversifying in too many areas can be a recipe for failure.
In Profit From The Core: A Return To Growth In Turbulent Times, the authors' 10-year study of more than 2,000 companies shows that most growth strategies fail to deliver value—or even destroy it—primarily because they wrongly diversify from the core business. How many times have we seen a successful small business decide to expand rapidly in different directions, only to crash and burn?
Take time to listen. This advice comes from Paul Bennett, chief creative officer at IDEO, in an article titled "8 Successful Entrepreneurs Give Their Younger Selves Lessons They Wish They'd Known Then." As Bennett puts it, "Slowing oneself down, engaging rather than endlessly debating and really taking the time to hear and learn is the greatest luxury of becoming older.” With age comes an appreciation of the value of silence and contemplation.
There's more to life than making money. You often hear older entrepreneurs regretting the fact that they didn't spend enough time with their family. Getting a company off the ground and ensuring its success is hard work that doesn't leave much surplus time. What often tends to be sacrificed is spending quality time with those who matter most, our loved ones. You may be a distracted presence at a child's event—or even miss the event altogether; you may stop nurturing your friendships or put off having a quiet walk with an elderly family member; you may be on a family vacation in body but not in spirit—while your family is trying to make memories at the beach, you are trying to make phone calls. All of these times are non-recoverable. If this describes you, learn from those who have been on that trail and make changes now to right the balance between life and money. There is an Italian proverb that says it all: "Our last garment is made without pockets."
Feel the need for some wisdom from seasoned entrepreneurs in your business? Here's how you can seek them out:
Establish a Personal Board of Directors
Assemble a group of people you can turn to for advice. Call them your personal advisory board. Don't just include other young entrepreneurs or experts in your field. Consider adding a retired or semi-retired executive in the mix, someone who may know nothing about your particular business but who has the business acumen garnered from having been in business for many years. They will shepherd you along the way—whether it's on business survival tactics from the school of hard knocks, creation of the right business model, or the ins and outs of people development. It's one of the smartest things you can do to shorten the learning curve and avoid costly mistakes.
Draw from the Military
A resource for budding entrepreneurs to learn operational efficiency, for example, is from military veterans. Military education has equipped these veterans with a multitude of skills that are gold for running a small business. These include the importance of planning, teamwork, resourcefulness, self-discipline, risk taking, decisiveness, unmatched loyalty and tenacity, to name a few.
You can gain a lot by having a military veteran in your team, someone who can add a calming perspective in dealing with challenges and obstacles that are inherent in the growth of a small business. "Every entrepreneur has experienced the feeling of things spinning out of control. The awful fear that failure is just around the corner," says Derek Blumke, a principal at Hire Purpose, an organization that matches talented veterans with companies that can use their skills. "A veteran is likely to see things much differently and exude confidence when those around him are riddled with doubt."
Above all, young business leaders can learn a lot from ex-military men and women about what it takes to be a leader.
Get a Mentor
There are many organizations to turn to for free mentoring. MicroMentor is a free business mentor service for entrepreneurs whose mission it is to help small businesses succeed. The Small Business Administration offers a list of government-sponsored mentoring organizations. The Young Entrepreneur Council, an invite-only American nonprofit organization, also helps young entrepreneurs. Some organizations, such as The National Association of Women Business Owners, offer mentoring in various chapters such as the one in California. In Canada, the Canadian Youth Business Foundation, another nonprofit, pairs entrepreneurs aged 18 to 34 with mentors who are looking to pass the torch. You can also hire a mentor from companies such as Vistage, Pivotplanet, Rockstar or Executive Mentors.
Ultimately, mentors can be found anywhere around you, if you look for them. It can be a neighbor, an ex-professor, an old friend, a retired colleague or a parent. And if we have the privilege to be around someone who lives by example, that is perhaps the best mentoring of all. As Mario Cuomo, ex-governor of New York, once said: "I talk and talk and talk, and I haven’t taught people in 50 years what my father taught by example in one week.”
Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.
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