Older Entrepreneurs: How do you learn by doing when you have too much to do?
19th April 2012 · 0 Comments
Both Ray Kurzweil and Stephen Wolfram concluded their presentations at SXSWi with comments on the importance of “learning by doing.” Those involved in teaching the art and science of being an entrepreneur, or even of being an angel investor, are taking this to heart in a variety of venues around the country.
The 1SS class here at the University of Texas is a prime example of that. Undergraduate students are graded on creating real companies during the semester as opposed to crafting hypothetical business plans. I’ve read of similar courses being explored even at the high school level. The measure of success of these programs is not so much the number of companies that actually take flight, but the creation of entrepreneurial skills and mindsets that will persist throughout a career. As a mentor in the class, I saw one of my more interesting teams melt away last semester when upon graduation the students had to get real jobs to pay the bills. But, I’m sure those young men will return to the game as soon as they are able and will be well prepared to do so.
There are numerous seasonal challenges, competitions, and Y Combinator type programs as well. Some of those provide considerable prize money, or, as in the case at YC, a parting investment of $150K to help launch your business to the next phase. The Rice Business Plan Competition will culminate this Friday by awarding $1.3M in prizes, for which 42 teams from around the world are competing. The recent Launch event in San Francisco also claims to have directly resulted in more than $2M in funding for the startups that presented on stage. No wonder many of the 1SS student teams are busy applying for similar programs this summer.
Add to that mix the many 3-day-startup events where teams form around ideas and crank out rather fully developed plans and sometimes even products over a weekend. (I’ve even seen a 1-day-startup suggested recently.) Those require an added measure of Red Bull fueled stamina to keep up the around-the-clock regimen.
Most of these programs are well suited for entrepreneurs who are young, geographically portable, and enjoying a life stage with very low overhead and few entanglements or social responsibilities. There was one notable exception in last year’s class at Capital Factory, a Chicago-based couple that sent their five children to the grandparents for the summer and came to Austin to pursue their dream.
For this generally youthful crowd, the risks are low. You are not likely to hurt your resume or your job potential, particularly if you have technology skills that are being honed in the process. If idea A doesn’t work, you’ve probably gotten to know teams with ideas B through Z and may be able to jump to one of those. You may also have the option of going back to graduate school to let your opportunities ferment for a few more years.
On the other hand, your opportunities to get into the tech game as you advance in age bring along considerably greater risk, particularly when you have a spouse in tow and more particularly when you have children that command and deserve your primary attention. A leap then from a corporate job to the unknown of a startup needs the full support of the family. You probably won’t have many ready backups if your primary plan doesn’t work, and you’ll have some difficulty returning to the corporate grind where you left off unless you have a unique professional skill. On the other hand, rarely will any angel investor provide funds for a startup being done “on the side.” You’ve got to make a 100% commitment to be credible.
The economy of recent times has forced many to take this leap, and others have seen the handwriting on the wall in their industries and felt compelled to try an alternative. We have here a crowd who may have really great concepts but likely need just as much education on the basics of entrepreneurship as do college students. If you took a theoretical course on the subject when you were in college a while back, you have some advantage, but rules and technologies change so fast now that if you’re in your 30’s or 40’s you need more than a refresher. I’ve met some entrepreneurs in this category recently and heard the very basic questions they are asking, so I know there is a need here.
I even spent some time thinking about a 3-day-startup weekend for Boomers. You might want to hold it at a country club, begin Friday with a Scotch and cigars dinner, open Saturday with a golf tournament, allow for some rest time, invite the families to a Saturday poolside buffet, and then pick up again after church on Sunday before the concluding dinner and pitches. Everyone would of course go home for a full night’s rest on Friday and Saturday. Not that these entrepreneurs wouldn’t be as capable and creative as the youngsters, but by that age they’ve probably achieved some comfort and some standing commitments that are hard to set aside. They’ll have a very different view of an intensive weekend project.
The good news is that some of these Boomers will have their own angel capital. The old standbys of developing real estate and creating de novo banks are no longer viable in most areas of the country, and you will find individuals motivated to try new concepts. The Colonel Sanders breed who famously started in their 60’s are anomalies. But, you won’t see any of the Boomers at Rice or back in class or at the combinator programs. You might ultimately see them at the more institutionalized incubators like the ATI and the ATDC, particularly if they can be matched up with academics and researchers who are bringing commercial ready technology out of affiliated universities.
Do we have an untapped resource as smart people mature, or are we developing a system that guarantees that startup ideas will come mostly from the 20ish set? I’m just asking the question, and I certainly don’t have the answer. Hence the title of this post. Your opinions are welcome.