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Just a number

Written by Josh Russell on Tuesday, 05 November 2013. Posted in Diversity, People

Sometimes entrepreneurialism can be seen as a young person’s game. But, in reality, whatever age you’re at, there’s never been a better time to start a business

Just a number

It’s something we’ve all heard many times before: ‘age is just a number’. However, sometimes, in the world of entrepreneurialism, it can feel like things are stacked against you if that number doesn’t fall in the right checkbox. With increasing attention paid to the young guns of enterprise, sometimes start-ups can feel like a young person’s game, but in fact there’s a huge wealth of evidence that you can launch a winning business, regardless of your age.

For Paul Spiers, founder of ethical surf brand Wave Native, the motivation to finally pursue his business came at 40, when his children reached the age he wanted to get them engaged and interested in the surfing community. Rather than being an arbitrary need to start a business by a certain age, he felt it was the natural time to explore an idea he’d had for a long time. “You just want to try something else, have some fun and do it for the family,”  he explains. “And to have no regrets, to not look back.”

But forming the decision to start one’s own enterprise may not be always as clear cut as that. An oft-cited reason why it may be easier to launch a business in your youth is that there are commitments that may be jeopardised if you fail. “Having money gives you a comfort blanket,” says Lenka Gourdie, co-founder of designer handbag outlet BagServant.co.uk and fashion digital marketing service SaleServant.com. “You have a certain income and you are accustomed to certain things.” This can mean that there can be a resistance at certain stages of life to laying everything on the line.

However, inevitably specific stages of life come with varying degrees of risk aversion. When Jane Whitham and Elizabeth Hudson committed to starting up PR agency Cream Consultancy, they were aged 39 and 29 respectively, meaning that, inevitably, the levels of personal risk each was exposing themselves to varied hugely. Whilst Whitham was moving from a rather stable position, sacrificing a well-paying position and a mortgage on a nice house, Hudson didn’t have as secure a base to launch from. This actually meant she wasn’t gambling her security on the new venture, something her partner definitely was. “I was in quite a flexible position,” she explains. “Whereas I think Jane had more to lose, in a way.”

It would be easy to make assumptions about age and risk aversion though and it’s important to remember that in reality this often doesn’t bear out in real life. Spiers feels it’s important to consider that these things can also provide a strong driver to create more of a future for yourself and those whom depend on you. “That’s certainly what drives me and I’m sure it’s what drives a lot of older entrepreneurs, that desire to create something better for more than just yourself.”

The age of an entrepreneur has a bearing on more than just their willingness to take the plunge. A huge part of launching a successful enterprise involves clearly identifying one’s target demographic and being able to show that you can loyally represent their needs.

The online shopping and fashion outlet for older women SoSensational is far from the norm in the fashion industry; its aims to challenge assumptions about mature women and the styles they can adopt mean it courts a demographic that rejects lazy stereotypes. The fact its founders Cyndy Lessing and Jan Shure were both in their 60s when they started the enterprise and yet were much more than just token examples of fashionable grown-up women means they clearly understood the perspectives of their market. “I hate to say ‘we represent the demographic’ because it sounds presumptuous,” Shure comments. “But we do understand the demographic.”

Whilst the stereotype for areas like fashion and PR is that they are dominated by youth, the entrepreneurs know they speak for a huge demographic who aren’t encapsulated by sweeping generalisations. “We know that’s not the reality,” Shure continues. “There are women all over business and the media who are in their 60s who have been on the cutting edge of social change and feminism; they’re not going to just put their feet up with a cup of cocoa.”

But the idea that entrepreneurs should be aiming to pitch only to their own demographic is fallacious in the extreme. Wave Native’s surfer market is one typically associated with youth and yet Spiers has found that what matters more is a degree of brand sincerity. “People just want to know it’s real, that you’re authentic, that you believe in it and it’s  not a big faceless brand,” he explains. “If it’s something with a story to tell from someone who believes what they’re doing, then age becomes far less relevant I think.”

Particularly in areas that move quickly, it would be easy to think it’s easier to remain in your comfort zone. Tech and app development are so often associated with 30-somethings in Silicon Roundabout that hearing a 58-year-old is successfully taking on the teenage market definitely makes a striking story. With his app Shuttersong, enabling people to marry their photographs with audio recording and music, William Agush knew he had something that could capture the imagination of a young demographic. He explains: “This came from watching my son and his friends grow up and knowing that music can be such an integral part of teenagers’ lives.”

Trying to put yourself into the shoes of someone 40 years your junior may seem like a daunting task but actually Agush found this relatively easy to transcend. “Whenever I look at one of, say, the young people that were in our beta test, I just try and pretend I’m them,” he says. “‘Why do they take pictures? What would sound add to the equation? Why would they want to do this?’”

And, in part, this ability to think beyond the boundaries of demographic has helped the app reach much wider audiences. Agush comments: “One of our biggest users is in his 80s, so it was a lot of fun to come up with something that was just as inspiring for a 14-year-old as an 80-year-old.”

The ability to relate to one’s audience is undeniably important but can the age of an entrepreneur affect how seriously the wider market is willing to take an enterprise? Since starting BagServant and SaleServant, Gourdie has met plenty of younger people with a great deal of passion and drive. “One of them is really determined and she’s 24,” she recalls. “She wants to work with others and help them to  grow.” However, she does acknowledge young people like this might face an uphill struggle for credibility. She continues: “In some situations  you also have to work harder for people to believe you actually have the expertise.”

However, there is a flip-side to this, particularly within certain sectors. “There are definitely investors who can’t quite get past the age thing,” comments Agush. But whilst it might be tempting to go in all guns blazing and explain why you can relate to your audience, he found a route that more effectively proved it wasn’t a factor. “Ultimately, I was just able to get past the whole subject of age by never even mentioning it,” he says. “What I did do is focused on all the years of operating experience, all the experience in figuring out what markets to enter, all the failures.”

In actuality though, what might be perceived in some circles as a disadvantage can actually be the key string to an enterprise’s bow. “Our age gives us a slight novelty value in this industry,” Shure says. For an enterprise that has so strongly relied on disrupting standard expectations of more mature women, having such a remarkable pair of entrepreneurs to head the organisation has actual given them their key differentiating factor. “There is an expectation of who is coming up in this industry and we are very much outside that norm,” she comments. “They look at us and think, ‘wow, that’s different, that’s new’ and that has worked in our favour. Because we don’t conform to the stereotype, we’re able to transcend expectations.”

Ultimately though, for any enterprise looking to ensure it isn’t simply defined or reduced to the age of its entrepreneurs, the key step is to ensure you make the most of the life experiences of all of your staff and guarantee you have a healthy mix throughout the organisation. Given Cream Consultancy was founded by two individuals at different stages of life, inevitably they have found this breadth of perspective to be one of their most vital assets. “We’ve got an apprentice who’s 17 and the speed at which she can do things and what she’s aware of is phenomenal,” comments Hudson. “But at the other end, Jane knows a lot more about other things and has more experience in lots of other ways.”

Evidently, age shouldn’t be a barrier to any entrepreneur looking to set up. However, used appropriately, one’s experiences, regardless of age, should be more than enough to secure the success of an enterprise. 

About the Author

Josh Russell

Josh Russell

Our former editor, Russell was the man in charge of properly apostrophising our publication and ensuring Oxford commas are mercilessly excised. Our former digital doyen, he’s also a Photoshop pro, a dab hand with InDesign and the man to go to if you need a four-hour soliloquy about the UK's best silicon startups.

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