Call them Gen Y, the Millennials, Generation Catalano, or now even Generation C, but whatever name you use for the young and plugged, this group certainly gets a lot of press. Members of this generation are also called "digital natives," which gives you a partial clue as to why the 20-something set is seen as the prime driver of tech innovation. Digital natives are natural consumers for each new gadget or app.

Aside from the avalanche of media coverage, Gen Y also makes up a huge part of the start-up community in a Silicon Valley business ecosystem that's been accused of bias against those with gray hair. All of which adds up for a tendency for tech-oriented start-ups to consider the young their natural customers and pay less attention to older folks.

That's a mistake if Y Combinator alum Weebly is anything to go by. It's a service that allows just about anyone to make a website super easily and at a very low cost, or no cost. (Weebly works on a freemium model giving most of its features, including most webpage creation tools and hosting, away for free and charging a small fee of $3 to $5 a month for pro tools like larger file uploads.) And it's been hugely successful: the site gets 70 million visitors a month and the company estimates that Weebly-made websites represent two percent of all sites online.

But when we spoke with co-founder David Rusenko, he explained that the massive growth of his company wasn't just down to computer literate young people but also to users in their 50s and beyond. While Rusenko concedes exact figures are difficult to come up, Weebly estimates 19 percent of its user base is 50 or older, which amounts to 1.9 million customers.

"We've had people as young as five years old and people as old as 95 create a website," says Rusenko. "We've seen adoption across all age brackets and I think that that's pretty unique for a lot of web products." He chalks up the service's success with a broad spectrum of age groups to its ease of use and suggests that by keeping the less tech-oriented user firmly in mind, his company has tapped into a rich vein of customer need and appreciation.

Rusenko explains that for a lot of people, creating a website for themselves just hasn't been possible before. "It's one thing if you were able to build a website before and now you can do it five times faster," he says. "That's certainly very cool, but to someone that just couldn't even fathom that they'd be able to create a website for themselves and now they can actually do it because of Weebly, this has opened up a world of possibilities for them. They're just so excited about that."

It's an appreciative and lucrative customer segment that Rusenko feels many techie founders often overlook. "I think there are several markets that are underserved," says Rusenko. "Just look at Pinterest that's been able to really cater to the female audience generally and has seen explosive growth. Coming from a younger, male, techie sort of stereotype, they sort of tend to think of themselves but older generations are absolutely under-served. People don't picture their needs and don't necessarily create products for them." If you're determined to avoid this mistake and tap into this market, Rusenko has two simple words for you: user testing, and lots of it.

Weebly's success with older folks is all down to paying close attention to their needs, Rusenko says: "I think it really comes down to making intuitive, easy-to-use products. A lot of times that's easier said than done and what that really means is just a whole lot of user testing," he says. "It's really getting into the minds of the non-technical person."

And that's not necessarily intuitive. In fact, to get it right, you have to really test, over and over again, "honing in on usability and making that a core focus," Rusenko says. "When you do that then you'll end up with something that's accessible to people of all generations."

Published on: Mar 5, 2012