Expectant and ambitious millennials have changed the way companies are run but a study shows Generation X are the most confident about running a successful business. So what role does age really play when it comes to entrepreneurship?
As the saying goes: “Age is just a number.” But age isn’t “just” anything when it comes to business. It can actually have a significant impact on decisions of aspiring entrepreneurs, a study has revealed, as well as on attitudes from clients and partners.
Having surveyed 2,000 adults across the UK with age groups from 18 to 22 up to 73 and over, Informi, the SME consultancy, has found 50% of millennials (aged 23 to 38) would like to run their own business one day. This makes millennials the keenest to become entrepreneurs of all age groups surveyed.
Interestingly though, despite the fact 35% of millennials consider launching a business a life ambition, Generation X (aged 39 to 53) have the most confidence their company launch would be a triumph at 70%, even though just 38% would like to run a firm. This beats millennials at 65% and baby boomers (aged 54 to 73) at 54%.
“Great businesses ultimately come in all shapes and sizes, and from all generations,” said Steven Drew, product manager for Informi. “But the rise of the millennials as entrepreneurial champions could help to encourage other adults from their generation to take the plunge into setting up their own business – something that over 550,000 people in the UK did during 2017.”
According to the report, Generation X also came out on top in terms of expecting they would enjoy working independently, be a good boss and think about work outside of the office.
Kjartan Rist, partner at Concentric, the venture capital firm, is well placed to know about the impact of age when running a business having spent over 15 years as a founder, board member and investor. Commenting on Generation X, he told Elite Business: “People in the 39 to 53 year-old category typically have had multiple companies behind them or have learnt from being in a ‘proper job’. In terms of tools and skills, they are perfectly set up to launch a new business.”
Rist added that they’re “economically solid enough” not to feel the damage of an irregular income as much as someone younger. Then again, there are those that may be reluctant to wave their monthly pay packet goodbye. “This category typically doesn’t have the same appetite for risk as the younger generation as history and experience have taught them otherwise,” he continued. “With their experience you often see single entrepreneurs, rather than multiple founders.”
It’s a different story altogether for Emily Austen, founder of EMERGE, the communications agency, however. She started her business straight out of university aged just 22. “I think being young was advantageous. I had no mortgage, family, children, or significant overheads,” she told us, explaining that risk was low as a result. “If it didn’t work, I would be young and employable and I wasn’t hardened yet to business life or challenging relationships.”
It did work though and six years later EMERGE boasts clients including the likes of Nickelodeon, Sony, Ray-Ban and Holland & Barrett. Austen added: “I backed myself 100% because I was young enough to think I knew everything and, although I did get some negative comments about my age, I think it was ultimately a positive thing, as clients could see my desire to succeed and my willingness to work.”
She wasn’t naive to the fact age could have been her undoing. Believing age and experience are linked, her angle when pitching to win new business was that she was fresh and not yet set in her ways, which would have been the case for many rivals. Austen noted that helpfully many of her clients were progressive, although other prospective partners would always dig deeper and in the most patronising ways. “I was asked my age a lot – I would always lie and say 25 when I was 22,” Austen admitted. “‘How could I know anything’ was said a few times or ‘you’re the same age as my daughter and she couldn’t run a business.’” Evidently, Austen has demonstrated she was clearly nothing like their daughters.
Waldo, the subscription-based contact lens service, secured a £3.7m investment at the end of July 2018. Aged 29, somewhere in-between Austen’s founding age and Generation X, nobody can question Waldo founder Ashleigh Hinde about her knowledge of the market. “Generally at least a few years of work experience is helpful when setting up a business but I think it’s less about age and more about experience,” Hinde said to Elite Business. “A lot of great businesses have been built fresh out of university but generally those entrepreneurs have had side jobs, strong mentors and some entrepreneurial experience along the way.”
Hinde’s advice is to cast age to the back of your mind and ensure plenty of research is done alongside continual learning in order to best serve the customers. “The less experience you have the more you should seek out a team and support network does have the experience you need,” she said. “It’s important not to think you can do it alone.”
Opening up on some of the mistakes she made as a young entrepreneur, Sara Lou-Ann Jones, founder of Centre of Excellence, the home study business, reflected: “I started my first ever business at just 19-years-old and, yes, we made loads of mistakes – registering for VAT way too early and lots of other things that we didn't really have a clue about at the time.”
Looking back on that period though, Jones, who turns 37 in November, wouldn’t change a thing because of what it taught her. “I got real hands-on experience for entrepreneurship for a good few years instead of going to university,” she said. “And now I'm in my mid to late 30s, I feel in a really good position to grow the business that I started six years ago to become a huge success.”
Going younger still, 22-year-old Jordan Daykin founded GripIt, the plasterboard fixings business backed by Dragons’ Den investor Deborah Meaden, when he was just 13. With supplier relationships in place since he was 15 and investors from 18, he admitted that he’s been fortunate not to have been met with scepticism. Trust, he believes, “will be based on regular updates, and honest accounts of your financial progress, not your age.”
And although Daykin agreed that youth means you have time on your side, especially when it comes to mistakes, being older also has its benefits. “I won’t deny that experience comes with age,” he said. “If I’d started later and held other roles prior to launching GripIt I would definitely have had more experience, for instance with employing staff. As building a strong team is so crucial to the success of any business I believe this is something that would have made a significant difference.”
Like the path of true love, it would seem the road to business never did run smooth. But although ageism can certainly be a factor when running a company, that doesn’t mean it will stop you from flourishing. You need only re-read what Austen and Jones have said.
Concentric’s Rist concluded: “The bottom line is that entrepreneurs come in all shapes and ages. The probability of success depends on how you put together a team, what support and advice you get and the drive and experience you have as a person and team.”