How to Handle People Who Can't See Past Your Age
In the startup world, if you're judging people based on their age--young or old--you're making a big mistake.
Brian Wong, the co-founder and CEO of Kiip, a mobile app ad platform, just turned 23. Four years ago, he became the youngest entrepreneur to receive venture capital, so he understands well the problems you can cause for your business by harboring age biases.
"If someone is going to judge you on your age, they might not be the right person you want to work with," Wong tells Inc. "I haven't met many people who are going to be successful be full of preconceived notions about age. In fact, they know they have been proven wrong many times before and at least give you the first shot."
Sam Altman, who found location-based social networking mobile app company Loopt when he was 20 and is now the president of Silicon Valley tech accelerator Y Combinator, says he doesn't know what all the fuss is about when it comes to age. "There's a lot of talk about ageism and tech, but one thing in this industry that's been really good is that people care about results more than anything else," Altman tells Inc. "In our last Y Combinator batch, we had a founder who was 16 when we funded him and another founder who is in his sixties."
Wong and Altman both said, however, that occasionally there are times when age comes up--some executives may automatically expect young founders to have innovative ideas, or older employees may have a chip on their shoulder about taking commands from someone half their age. Below, read how to deal with age issues on the rare occasion they arise.
Managing an older employee
Altman, who is now 29 and replaced Paul Graham as president of the country's oldest accelerator, says he doesn't believe the stories of 40-year-old engineers getting Botox to land a job. "The notion of qualified, smart engineers being passed over because they are 35--I've never seen any evidence of that," he says. The worst thing he's ever dealt with in terms of age was his own discomfort: "The hardest thing was managing employees significantly older than me," he says. "When you're a 20-year-old CEO and your VP of sales is a 50-year-old and you're telling them what to do, that was my biggest problem. But in the line of duty you just do it. You suck it up and do it."
Erase concerns with self-deprecation
Wong's advice for young entrepreneurs is twofold. First, "If you look at your age as a crutch or disadvantage it will become one. But if you look at it as an enabler or positive thing, it will be a positive thing," he says. Second, "The first thing I say during a meeting with older executives, especially if someone is looking at me in a strange way is: 'Yeah, I look like I'm 12, let's move on,'" he says. "Self-deprecation will remove the question of age and your product or content will get everyone down to business. By then, they think I am smart, legitimate, and doing something cool."
Sometimes nothing beats a shirt and tie
Although Altman says he stopped wearing a suit because he felt he was wearing a "costume," he does acknowledge that certain industries are a different beast. Daniel Saks, the 29-year-old co-founder of cloud service marketplace company AppDirect, tells Inc. that when you're pitching executives from large enterprise customers like AT&T, Comcast, and Deutsche Telekom--"people do judge you by your age." Saks says young founders can make sure they are judged as legitimate businesspeople by displaying the utmost professionalism. "I tell my employees about the importance of being cultural chameleons--I may show up at work with a hoodie and jeans, but when I meet a client who has a suit-and-tie culture I will wear a suit and tie," he says. "Driving that level of professionalism eliminates any age concerns they have."
WILL YAKOWICZ | Staff Writer | Reporter, Inc.com
Will Yakowicz is a staff writer for Inc. magazine. He has covered business, crime, and local politics for The Brooklyn Paper and was the editor of Park Slope Patch. He has also reported in the West Bank and Moscow for Tablet Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.