Skip directly to content

Families - not age - affects startups

on Fri, 02/22/2013 - 13:15

On February 17, 2013, Scott Kirsner of the Boston Globe wrote an article Exploring the Age Divide in Boston Start-Ups. It infuritated me for two reasons: 1) It's probably true, but 2) for different reasons than Scott asserted.

Scott's premise is that start-ups are only the domain of young, 20-somethings. He concludes "older people" (over 30?) don't do startups because they:

  1. Moved to - and so work - in the 'burbs;
  2. Won't put in the hours required by a startup;
  3. Have atrophying skills (e.g. Java vs. RoR);
  4. Are less malleable and trainable;
  5. Have higher salary expectations than startups can supply;
  6. Aren't part of the "birds of a feather" of the younger workers;
  7. Have "big company" stigma, and don't know how to work in a startup;
  8. Won't sue if not hired;
  9. Can be useful in some sectors or roles;
  10. Should have retired to a private island by now.

Scott's implication is that the driving factor is simply age.  I see it differently.

(BTW: I see lots of startups.  For the last few months, I've been spending roughly full time volunteering as a Mentor at TechStars Boston (in Cambridge). I also spent a bunch of time mentoring a bunch of MassChallenge companies last year. Add to that a few dozen other companies I've met with outside both programs.)

Family is the key - not (merely) age

I might be quibbling about details. But IMO the dynamic is simple: the reason "older" people aren't as present in startups is because of the arrival / presence of at-home children.

With apologies to parents who might feel awkward reading this, here's what I think is really happening:

  • Parents cannot work for no / low pay for many months. One's household mandatory burn rate - and tolerance for risk - changes dramatically once a family is started. Yes, there is a correlation between parental age & children at home; but correlation is not causation. The cause is the burn rate needed to care for a family, not age itself. This (also) relates to Scott's point #5 - but again it's not that the "older" people have higher salary expectations because they're older; it's that they have higher costs at home they must consider.
  • Children are more important than a company. And it should be. Once a child arrives at home, there's no way a parent wants to miss the experiences that go along with being a parent. So it becomes harder to decide to be a founder, and commit to at-work hours that mean you'll miss when little Johnny takes his first step.
  • Once you have children, it is the American Way™ to have a back yard and swing - which means you're moving to the burbs. This validates Scott's point #1, but means the cause isn't mere age - it's the arrival of children.
  • Parents can't relate to non-parents. Scott's point #6 is true - but as a married adult without children I can attest to the fact that over the course of my long life, we (sadly) see friendships wane once couples with whom my wife & I are frends have children. Parents want to share the experience of parenting with their peers; it's frustrating for both couples when we share our own stories about Johnny's first steps. The same will apply to the 20-somethings who have children; their 20-something, non-parent friends won't be their "birds of a feather" anymore. Again, age is a correlary point, but not a causal factor.

I could go on, and refute other of Scott's points, but by now you get my point: It's less discrimination against age, and more that people with young families are not able to tolerate the demands of a startup.

This implies two things I hope startups will consider:

  • Don't be blind to the risk of losing really excellent younger workers that opt to start a family during the first few years of a startup.
  • Don't overlook interviewing "hip" empty-nesters. They bring a boatload of experience that will help your business, and can tolerate the risk. If they've done well, but aren't ready to head off to the islands, you'll increase your chances of success when you have some staff that have already made the mistakes you want to avoid.

Post new comment