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But I Have a Family! And a Mercedes!

You're never too old to start a company. But you'll need to show the same commitment, passion, and willingness to sacrifice as any younger entrepreneur.
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One recent theme at the Triangle Startup Factory is that of the later-in-life entrepreneur. We are seeing a lot of newly minted company founders with gray in their hair. In fact, in our 11-company portfolio we have three founders older than 50, two founders older than 40, and at least three founders older than 30.

Starting a company at this stage in life presents a number of specific challenges. We’ve learned that they need to be addressed directly, before they create friction between co-founders, between founders and future investors, and even between founders and their advisers and mentors. The issues might include:

  • The need to maintain current income to support a family
  • The need to maintain current income to support an acquired lifestyle
  • Family pressures that limit available time
  • Location restrictions that limit future company movement
  • Trouble getting comfortable with how people communicate in contemporary start-ups (also known as the “sorry, I don’t use email” problem)
  • Insufficient levels of commitment and passion

I’ve written previously about the leap--that moment when you say yes, without reservation. Before you take the leap, I said, you should gather as much data as possible to mitigate risk. But some amount of risk is inherent in the leap, no matter what you do, and you have to accept your share of it.

At Triangle Startup Factory, we invest $50,000 in each company we admit to the program. Recently, a two-person team with one later-in-life founder made it to the last stage of our selection process. When pressed, the older co-founder revealed that he could not or would not quit his consulting practice-- though we make it clear to all applicants that our program is an all-in commitment. The man said he simply couldn’t go without income for any period of time. Our impression is that he thought his team’s idea was so magical that we would waive one of our essential requirements. He also thought that he could work both gigs and still be successful.

In other words, he expected me to take all the risk. By the way, he drives a Mercedes.

Contrast that fellow (whose partner, by the way, was stunned and angry) with another older entrepreneur we have been working with. As his start-up idea moved from idea to action, he prepared himself and his family for the leap. While still working full time, he began to curtail his lifestyle: He downgraded his automobiles, cut out the big family vacation, and started living on less. He was able to create a 12-month financial cushion.

This founder is definitely taking a share of the risk. And because he doesn’t expect his start-up to support his lifestyle, the company has more freedom to allocate capital to other needs, which in turn enables the company to grow faster.

Last updated: Jan 30, 2013

CHRIS HEIVLY | Columnist | Managing Director

Chris Heivly was a co-founder of MapQuest (which sold to AOL for $1.2 billion), sole managing director of 77 Capital (a $25 million venture fund), and an executive at five software companies. Currently, he is one of two managing directors of The Startup Factory, a seed investment fund making 10 to 14 new investments per year. A national writer and speaker about startups and startup communities, Heivly is also the founder of the Big Top Job Fair.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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