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For Startup Executives, Age Shouldn’t Matter

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Editor’s Note: Chris Lynch is a partner at Atlas Venture where focuses on big data and infrastructure.  He has led investments in companies such as Hadapt, Nutonian, Threat Stack and Sqrrl. He shares his thoughts on technology at appetitefordisruption.com.

There’s been an ongoing debate about the best age to found and run a tech startup.  Lots of VC’s prefer to back young founders who can make change happen and conceive innovation from a clean slate.  Others look for entrepreneurs with experience, those who have done it before.  Vivek Wadhwa, the author, entrepreneur and champion of workplace diversity, recently compiled some really interesting research to support his theory that middle-aged entrepreneurs are critical to advancing innovation and building big companies.  As Wadhwa says, “Big problems take wisdom.”

While the debate is interesting, it’s hard to be definitive about which is “better” for tech startups, young or old.  There are too many variables.  First and foremost it depends upon the individual, but also the industry sector, the technology, the person’s network/community and many other considerations.

Young and old, they each have their stereotypical advantages.  At the most basic level, those stereotypes feel true:  younger people have fresh thinking, boundless energy, no bad habits to unlearn; older entrepreneurs have management and technology experience to guide them and maturity that may translate to better decision making.

I look for the right individual(s) and back many first-time entrepreneurs, who I support and often mentor.  I also back repeat and serial entrepreneurs, many of whom I have partnered with in some capacity in the past; meaning they have worked with me and succeeded before.  I do believe people learn to win, and learn to lose.

Now we’re seeing an opportunity at the intersection of two interesting entrepreneurial trends: (1) young entrepreneurs that fail because of lack of domain expertise and leadership experience and (2) older visionary entrepreneurs who have multiple successes — they still have vision and want to be in the game, but at this point in their careers they don’t want to start up, run and build another company.

Bridging the gap between the next generation of entrepreneurs, and those who have done it before, isn’t a new concept.  The classic example is Google: founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, both 25, brought on the more experienced CEO Eric Schmidt, 46, to run the company.  It was a perfect match that leveraged their individual strengths.

In the end, I have found the success of a start-up largely comes down to HBS. No, not that HBS…something more primitive: heart, balls and soul!  Before you jump on me, that’s not a sexist comment; it’s a state of mind that any entrepreneur can have.

Co-Creation

There needs to be a model that leverages each individual’s strengths: teaming the older visionaries who have incredible domain expertise with younger entrepreneurs who have the energy and ambition to run a company.  My team and I call it “Co-Creation”.

To cite an example, take my long time partner, good friend and mentor Cheng Wu.  Cheng is a true visionary.  His most recent idea/company Azuki Systems (now part of Ericsson) is a testament to this model.  Cheng conceived the idea of video delivery to any device before smartphones and tablets were even on the market.  Azuki went on to enable Showtime and HBO Go and others to launch their streaming video services.  Before that he founded and grew Acopia (acquired by F5 Networks), Arrowpoint (acquired by Cisco for $5.7B) and Arris, etc.  The common thread among all of these companies was a visionary idea and a disruptive technology solution.  As a result, Cheng has created billions of dollars in shareholder value.

Is Cheng Wu ready to start his next company?  In his own words, “Not again.”  Does he have any ideas for a new company?  “At least four,” he says.  Cheng isn’t ready to hang up his cleats.  At this point in his life the prospect of starting and running his sixth company (and the accompanying daily marathon that comes with it) eludes him.  But, he still wants to be in the game and he still has visionary ideas.

There are plenty of visionaries out there in the same position as Cheng Wu, with experience and ideas just waiting to be tapped.  Another friend and industry luminary in a similar position is Jit Saxena, who co-founded and sold Netezza to IBM for $1.7 billion. In addition to being visionary, he also brings invaluable experience in the maturation of ideas and discipline of thought; in executing the idea and making it a commercially viable product or service.

In the “Co-Creation” model, these more experienced, visionary entrepreneurs can act in an executive chairman capacity; involved and invested in the company but not on a day-to-day basis.  The day-to-day running of the business is for the next-generation entrepreneur with boundless energy and new approaches.  Younger entrepreneurs typically have less non-work responsibilities and are able to make the business their first priority.  They bring original thinking, forward-looking approaches and no baggage.  They can also better relate to the younger consumer, which is sometimes a challenge for the older entrepreneur, particularly in consumer-centric tech applications and services.

Making it work.

You can’t just put two people together and poof, a mega-success is born.  Just like any successful partnership, there needs to be chemistry and commitment through the good, the bad and the ugly.  Both parties need to be open, honest and transparent about their expectations and concerns from the start.  Most importantly, they need to be willing to learn from each other and they need to be willing to compromise.

When you think about it, this is a proven model that has been passed down over the ages.  The older generation imparts wisdom that brings revelation to the younger generation, sparing them from having to learn the hard way, and setting them on the right path in life. This can – and should – be captured and applied as a repeatable business strategy that can give startups a head start on their path to maturity and accelerate their success.

Featured Image: Vinoth Chandar/Flickr UNDER A CC BY 2.0 LICENSE