Six reasons why you should start a Company with someone twice—or half—your age
This is a guest post by Jennifer Hinkel, partner at McGivney Global Advisors
A pile of conventional wisdom exists for how to find a co-founder, what that person should be like, and what the two of you should have in common. The answers: find someone a lot like yourself, look first among your classmates and friends, have similar styles, be at the same point in life. Many of the most famous startup duos — Jobs and Wozniak, or Larry and Sergei — seem to fit this outline. But we turned all of this on its head. Bill is 63, I’m 34, and we started a company together.
I met Bill when he was the CEO of the company that gave me my second job after grad school. I was a typically overenthusiastic but green and eager-to-learn newbie in the industry; he already had senior leadership positions at a number of companies under his belt and was generous enough to become my mentor. After four years, I changed companies, but stayed in touch, even when my new job took me around the world. I was in India when I found out that he had parted ways with that company after 15 years as CEO; it was a year later when I was in San Francisco that we seriously talked about teaming up to build a consulting firm.
A three-decade age gap makes for some interesting situations. I’ve been mistaken for an assistant instead of a business partner. Occasionally, someone thinks Bill is my dad. But we see the differences inherent in our “intergenerationalty” not as bugs, but as features. Here are some reasons why it works:
A company can’t get off the ground without excellent connections. For most startups, this means finding mentors and investors who are willing to open doors for you beyond your immediate network.
When one of your co-founders has decades of experience in your industry, that experience comes with a strong network of deep, friendly, and proven relationships grown over many years. Only time and experience can build such a network, and Bill has it.
On my side, because I came immediately from industry and know many of the younger “rising stars” in our sector, I have a broad network of potential clients, a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what they’re really looking for, and a potential talent pipeline from those who have expressed interest in consulting.
Our connections are valuable, different, and complementary — which is a stark contrast to many startup teams where the co-founders run in the same circle, creating the necessity to reach outside for partnerships, customers, and advocates.
The day-to-day technology of doing business is very different than it was even a decade ago, even if you aren’t in a tech-heavy industry. Even for the most tech-savvy person later in their career, technology poses a challenge. An intergenerational partnership is one way for an older, more experienced leader to instantly add tech fluency by teaming up with a “digital native.”
However, like most of the features of our partnership, this goes both ways. While I’m usually bullish on new tech, Bill points out when the tried-and-true way of doing things can’t be replaced by tech, which also helps keep me grounded and focused on making personal connections that further our business rather than over-relying on technology. Sometimes, you really do have to pick up the phone or jump on a plane, and dazzling graphics can’t make up for weak presentation content visit here.
When a startup has a founding team similar in age, background, and goals, the environment can quickly become competitive among the leaders. Unfortunately, a competing co-founding team is the death knell for a startup or small company. While strategies exist for structuring new companies to reduce the risk of co-founders fighting for control or over strategic direction, an intergenerational team prevents competitiveness from the start simply because we’re at such different junctures of our careers. Moreover, instead of creating a competition over who will be in control, an intergenerational team sets a company up for a successful succession plan, which we’ll discuss in more depth.
Bill and I have zero situations where we would need to compete against each other because we’re at different places in our careers. We do have a healthy attitude of each trying to bring in more business, but for the good of the whole, not for our individual benefit. Our intergenerational dynamic means that neither of us could ever perceive the other as a threat to getting the outcome that we want from this venture.
Succession can almost be seen as the flip side of competitiveness. When you have a co-founding team that looks similar, someone has to be in the lead/CEO role, and then you have to figure out who is going to be the next leader after the company grows, or after the first CEO moves on. In previous startups, we had to discuss whether a co-founder was the right person to be CEO or whether we should hire a leader from the outside. In a mentor/mentee startup team, much like the old model of a parent/child family business, the succession plan is built in, which gives an intergenerational startup more stability for growth than any other model. Unlike teams of similar age where one person is always in the shadow of the other, in an intergenerational co-founding team, there is a clear leader for the present and a clear leader for the future. In fact, neither of us can get the desired outcome for the company and for ourselves as individuals without a successful transition and succession.
A mentor and mentee provide excellent balance for one another. An intergenerational partnership provides automatic checks and balances because of our different experiences and perspectives. In our partnership, I’m typically the riskier one; I push more aggressively to consider more innovative products, projects that would be a stretch, working with risky new companies, and trying out unproven methods. Bill is more measured, and reinforces that the “bread and butter” of our business comes from established clients and our track record. Bill and I have a healthy push and pull around these issues, which is great for the health and growth of our business. He keeps me from taking risks that would be unwise or too big, and I make sure we’re still playing the edge as much as possible.
When you have two young partners, both are likely to have a high risk tolerance, which could seem like a good thing at face value, but could actually lead to taking the wrong kinds of risks, or too much risk, such as spending too much time on business development and not enough time buckling down and concentrating on product. I’ve been part of or close to startups that grew too fast, hired people on before the company knew that it would be able to keep up with payroll, placed bets on too few customers, or had too many distractions.
Working with someone twice or half your age gives you a different perspective. When I see our competitor firms revving up their teams about some “new” thing, I have someone to go to who can point out that the “new” trend happening in our industry is a repeat of something from fifteen years ago, why it is or is not something novel, and why it did or didn’t work the last time it came around. This perspective gives us something that differentiates our firm from our competitors, because it grounds us in a sense of history, pragmaticism, and the real world. Instead of chasing every buzz word, we can focus on the long term arc of our customers and our sector. Bill has experience in what does and doesn’t work, both in the larger industry and within a company, because he’s built companies before and seen all of these trends come and go in various shapes. In a complementary way, I have the perspective of what our clients want now, because I just came from a company that is now our customer. The combination of these two perspectives packs a powerful punch in terms of proving our value.
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