Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The older entrepreneur’s advantage

Some time ago, I shared an article on age and entrepreneurship.  The recommendation was that nobody under 21 or over 38 should try it: young people wouldn’t be taken seriously, and older folks don’t have enough stamina.

It stuck me as a nonsensical guideline at the time.  One could easily say the same thing about expatriate life, but I know wonderful folks at both ends of the age spectrum who do it really well.  And when it comes to starting a business, WillisI use Bruce Willis as my model: When the world needs to be saved, he knows who to call and how to keep things in perspective.

So, there was no small measure of vindication in the Economist’s article about Older Entrepreneurs last week.

Based on a study of 500 US startups, the researchers found that the average age of founders of successful new technology businesses was 39.  In fact, there were twice as many successful founders over 50 as under 25, even twice as many over 60 as under 20 (for the record, I’m 57).  The Kaufmann Foundation has reported that the highest rate of entrepreneurial activity is among people aged 55 to 64, accounting for 23% of all new enterprises.

The article doesn’t speculate as to why either of these studies should be true, but I can make some guesses.

With regard to the higher rate of new business formation, I think that a lot of older folks simply have no alternative.  If they lose a job (or, like me, become discouraged with the one that they are in), changing jobs or retiring is not an option.  Starting a new business is attractive because it builds on skills, experiences, and networks that we’ve already established.  And the temptation of having creative control,  a choice in who we work with, and keeping the money we win are all powerful incentives.

I think that the top three qualities that translate business potential into success are flexibility, persistence, and a willingness to learn.  If Plan A fails, you have to be able to turn to B, then C: we’ve all bent with circumstances in our careers and made the proverbial lemonade from lemons.  You have to outlast the system and never give up: that takes confidence, perspective, and patience (especially during fundraising).  And while you think you know it all, you have to know that you probably understand about 20% of what you need to know: being humble and willing to learn from others and from experience is crucial.

older-entrepreneurI do know very clever and very energetic young entrepreneurs doing amazing things with technology and media.  I know that some of them will hit it big. 

But, from a standing start, I have always been inclined to bet on the boffin with a twinkle in his eye, the one who says it can be done and knows who to call.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Why expatriate?

expatriate lifeEvery trip back to the US renews the question:  Why live in the Netherlands?  For some, it seems like I am turning my back on my heritage and my culture; others think I’ve simply been seduced by the romance of living abroad.  Always, there’s the question of where it ends and what comes next: expatriate life in the Netherlands is neither stable nor sustainable.

On the long flights back and forth between there and here, bored with the movies and sipping red wine, I think abut the ‘why’, I wonder about the ‘where to’.  Sometimes, I think I understand a little.

There’s certainly the opportunity.  After six years, the Netherlands is where my colleagues and resources are, it’s where I know how to get things done and where I can do them well.  I’m running a couple of businesses, hiring a few people, designing several products, entering global markets.  It’s exciting and fulfilling, I’m in a flow of technologies, markets, and deals that I can orchestrate to improve people’s lives and create social value.  I would have to back up six years and start over if I tried to do that somewhere else.

The flip side is the challenge.  Every day I’m faced with events, people, processes that need to be understood in order to get things done.  Sometimes it’s a simple thing, where to shop for a mousetrap (the pet store) or obtain an uittreksel (the Gemeente).  Sometimes it’s larger: learning Dutch or doing taxes.  But every day I figure out how to do things, and I learn, build confidence, master something most people don’t know how to do.  Surmounting challenges is a source of pride and optimism: it  feels good to develop and succeed.

Then there’s the passion.  There’s no question that living abroad has  romance, whether you compare yourself to Hemingway or Gauguin.  I call it ‘Living remarkably’, sunrise over the Maas, an afternoon at the museum, biertje and jazz in the evening.  It’s taking the little ferry with my bike across the river, driving to Luxemburg on a whim, sailing in the Archipelago near Stockholm.  It’s swapping stories and tips over koffie in the summer, sharing Carnival colors in the winter.  It’s amazing.

And finally there’s the stuff.  Six years ago, I packed up 13 boxes of things and moved them to the Netherlands.  Those artifacts, books and clothes, now augmented with pictures and souvenirs, form a familiar setting that is warm and recognizable when I return to it.  To be sure, it’s things, not people: I can’t call it home without those close to me.  But it’s a neighborhood where I know the shops and services, an apartment with my things, and a rattle-trap bicycle that is always there, chained along the riverfront, when I return.

I don’t know where or how it ends, but I do know certainly why I like the life and why I return.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Back to the US (and more snow)

PlanningThe departure went like clockwork.

At 3:30 my Dutch toets ended; a quick cross-town pedal and I was in the apartment picking up suitcases by 4.  Train station at 4:30, where one of our engineers was waiting, one arm outstretched with our product prototype to take to Seattle.

A dozen connections, all mapped with military precision, lie ahead.

The train to Liege was on time, the connection to Brussels was only five minutes late.  Check onto the Eurostar with an easy 30-minute lag, then arrived at St. Pancras at 10:15.

I do love it when a plan comes together.  I’ve heard that Bill Gates used to challenge himself with how close he could time plane connections.  ‘too much panting for  my taste: I prefer the bold stride and confident smile that tells the world that I never had any doubt.

(or that I had a great back-up plan)

‘heck into a nearby hotel, quick nap then out at 8:30 the next morning.  ‘Taxi to the Accountant’s Hall: five minutes late for a meeting with investors (damn London traffic) where an hour’s meeting secured a five-figure check.  Two suitcases back in hand: drag them up the stairs, across the street, down to the Tube (I really hate taking suitcases on the Tube).  Around to Paddington, onto the Heathrow Express (stealthily changing shirts without being glimpsed by the other passengers).  Change trains to T4 and check in an easy 1 hour 15 until the flight.

I do a victory lap, picking up two gifts and grabbing breakfast in the lounge.

Kennedy airport, 3 pm.  I‘ve got four bags, three laptops, and a highly suspicious bit of home-brew electronics to get through customs and security.  Predictably, they pull off the product prototype for a sniff-scan.  Unpredictably, they open my shoulder bag behind me and take out several items to run through the x-ray again.  Including my passport pouch.

The only thing that saved me is that I always pat for my passport before leaving security: this time it was gone.  I called time out and announced that my documents were missing: a screener located them fully four bins behind my stuff, mixed in with another person’s.  I asked to speak with a Supervisor: even by Kennedy standards, this was terrible.

DSC0783140 minutes left: the boards announce a gate change necessitating a bus all the way across the tarmac to a new terminal under construction.  We lurch across the airport as the rain and wind rise, a storm that closed O’Hare the day before now arriving.  They hurry everyone onto the plane and we leave ten minutes early, lurching up into the turgid evening sky.

I’ve been jammed into the last row center: dropping from Diamond to Platinum status for 2012 apparently means a significant loss of benefits. The movies are all ‘for pay’, the food runs out before they can try to sell me any.  I doze my way westward.

Snow was starting to fall as I landed in Seattle, not much different from the frosting in Maastricht a day and a half before.  The bags made it through and the computer was filled with emails to be sent.  Be me, I was just spent.  This doesn’t get any easier, even when it all works well.