You're Never Too Old to Innovate

Howard Tullman

YOU’RE NEVER TOO OLD TO INNOVATE

                Visitors to 1871 are always surprised to see so much gray hair on the heads of folks zipping around the place. (No one here saunters – everyone’s in a hurry.) It turns out that a significant portion of these older folks are our mentors and, while gray hair is sometimes simply a sign of age and not necessarily of wisdom, that hasn’t been our experience, and we couldn’t be happier or more blessed to have hundreds of experienced business builders (most of whom are senior executives from various industries) regularly volunteering their time to help coach our new companies.

They certainly do this to aid and support our startups and to give back to our community, but they also get an extraordinary look over the horizon at the kinds of disruptive innovations that are right around the corner in their own businesses and marketplaces. It’s a wide-open and welcoming window on the future.  Everyone today lives in some kind of bubble and it’s essential for all of us to try to get outside of our own environments and our comfort zones from time to time and get some exposure to new people and new ideas if we want to keep going and keep our companies growing. Our volunteers get a real kick out of the chance to spin out some of their own new ideas and to be innovative in their own right in ways that just wouldn’t, couldn’t or haven’t worked in their own corporate environments where peace is often more important than progress.  It’s an energizing, if temporary, escape from the echo chambers and the smothering silos that they operate in from day-to-day in their own firms.

At a certain age, in the grown-up world, ideas and ideals are largely replaced by more conventional concerns and goals. Age is a horrible price to pay for “maturity”. There’s an unhappy concession to business as usual and, in so many of these places, it doesn’t feel any longer like they’re doing something new and special – reaching a top speed or setting a personal best – it feels like something they’re giving in to like going bald, gaining weight or getting old. It doesn’t have to be that way. We’re still dreamers at 1871 and it’s a totally contagious disease which hits you the moment you enter our electric and energized ecosystem.

There’s a certain freedom of thought and action at 1871 (not knowing what you’re supposedly not able to do is a huge advantage) and there’s a compelling sense of urgency because, for entrepreneurs and innovators, the right time is always right now. There’s never going to be a perfect time; the stars will never totally align; and you’ll never have everything you need to be certain of anything. But that’s all part of the deal and what makes things so exciting. We don’t take time for granted at 1871 – it’s the scarcest resource we have – and we don’t believe in waiting for some perfect moment to get started because waiting never gets you to a better result. Doing is what gets things done.

This year our mentors will provide more than 7500 hours of one-on-one advice and support for our members through our workshops and “office hours” program. These face-to-face meetings are the ultimate in entrepreneurial education delivered by people who have been there; people who speak frankly and directly with no hidden agenda or ulterior motives; and people whose own innovative suggestions and ideas often contribute as much to the business’s ultimate success and direction as any other member of the startup team. In addition to being people who know what they’re talking about ( which regrettably is not always the case with some mentors – See http://www.inc.com/howard-tullman/how-to-deal-with-marginal-mentors.html), our veteran mentors are a ready and consistent source of leads, customers, network introductions and even investments for our startups. It’s a total win-win deal.

But the more important observation is that there is, in fact, a significant part of our membership who are building their new businesses every day and who aren’t remotely like the Silicon Valley newbies that you might expect from the persistent media descriptions and your favorite cable shows. In fact, our members under 30 years old aren’t even the majority (by age or industry experience) of all the entrepreneurs in our place.

Innovation, it turns out, has almost nothing to do with age. Innovators come in every size, shape, color and age. Being an innovator is all about your powers of observation, your openness to new ideas, and your willingness to accept and embrace change. The entrepreneurial bug and the desire to make a change that will make a difference in many people’s lives can strike at any time and at any age.  And we’ve got hundreds of examples to prove it.  

We’ve got really smart serial entrepreneurs who are here because they see no need to make sizeable infrastructure investments and lease/equipment commitments before they know whether their new idea is as good as their last one and whether the dogs are gonna eat the dogfood this time around.  It pays big dividends to “know before you go” and we make that possible.

We’ve got career changers who’ve put in their 20 years at the grindstone and now they want to do something new, different and maybe a lot more meaningful and do it in an environment where they’re surrounded by individuals on a similar journey who are driven by like passions instead of sitting around somewhere where their family and/or their peers keep asking them politely whether they’re having a breakdown or a midlife crisis. There are always plenty of people happy to tell you why your dreams can’t come true – it’s much smarter to surround yourself with people who can help make those dreams happen. It also makes sense to stay far away from the people who have a problem for every solution.

We’ve got Moms with kids finally in school and other eager empty-nesters who are all looking for an effective on-ramp back into the workforce (along with the necessary programming, training, resources, funding and support) to help them jumpstart their re-entry into the business world with an idea or two for a business that they’ve always wanted to build. They don’t really care to be the odd duck out at some cheap co-working space for adolescent amateurs with great coffee and beer blasts, but not much in the way of content or companionship. They like being somewhere where people know their names and share their hopes and dreams.

And then we’ve got a whole collection of seasoned professionals (in their 40s, 50s or 60s) who know their businesses like the back of their hands and know what new management tools and other information and resources they’re going to need in order to maintain and, in fact, grow their businesses going forward, BUT (and it’s a very big BUT) they don’t know the first thing about the desktop and mobile technologies that it’s going to take to build the solutions they need. And they couldn’t build these sites, apps and/or dashboards even if their lives (and not simply their livelihoods) depended on it. So, every day we and our in-house team of recruiters act as matchmakers and connectors working to pair these domain experts with technical resources, programmers, and engineers of all ages who can work with them to design, develop and build exactly the apps and answers that they’re looking for. These are marriages that are more made in hard work than in heaven, but the key is that they work well for all concerned.

What’s the bottom line? There’s room for everyone in the pool. It’s never too early or too late to get started. Entrepreneurs have no expiration date. You’re only “old” when you let your regrets take the place of your dreams. 

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