Starting a Business: It’s Never Too Late by Michael S. Malone
At age 54, I’ve just started two companies.
And what I’ve already learned from the experience is that not only am I more suited for the task now than I was at 27 or 38, but that the world of entrepreneurial start-ups is now much more suited for me. And for you.
Let me start by giving you a little background (and I should also note that any companies I mention in this article, by definition, represent a conflict of interest on my part and you should in no way take my comments as an objective appraisal or a recommendation).
Having grown up in Silicon Valley, and then having spent a decade as a journalist writing about other people starting companies, I finally decided to try my hand at entrepreneurship in my early 30s. I was one of those people — by far the majority — you don’t read about.
One company I helped start got no further than a sophisticated business plan and a tour by the founding team of venture capital firms — where it got shot down. Another lingered on for nearly two years, with a great product idea, a dedicated team and even some money.
My business partners and I put in endless hours, begged funding from friends and family, but in the end, we lacked the ability to take it to the next step. We had been too dreamy about our idea, too unwilling to focus on a single strategy, too unprofessional in our organization — and now we had to go back to all of those friends and family and tell them we’d lost their hard-earned money. I’ve never quite gotten over that one.
I also tried my hand at angel investing, putting money into two start-ups that, amazingly, are still around a decade later. But they have never gone public, nor been acquired, so my investment still sits there, slowly being diluted, a perpetual lesson that there is a third fate to start-ups besides success and oblivion: endless limbo. I have nothing but awe for the entrepreneurs at those companies, who have devoted a vast chunk of their lives in what must seem like an endless, lung-burning, side-cramping sprint.
In my 40s I ran one of Forbes’ magazines. Directing my hand-picked team, based in offices in Silicon Valley, and with a laissez-faire parent company 3,000 miles away that behaved pretty much like a venture capital firm, I got my first taste of what it’s like to be the CEO of a successful start-up. During the dot-com bubble years, when running a magazine was like printing money, the experience was exhilarating. But when the bubble burst and Forbes pulled the plug on my magazine, I finally got the painful lesson eventually learned by every entrepreneur: Even when you are in charge, you aren’t necessarily in control.
Now I’m in the sixth decade of my life and suddenly I find myself, after all these years, starting not one, but two, companies. Why? Opportunity, that single most important motivator (after a perpetual quest for personal freedom) that drives entrepreneurs.
In starting these companies, I find myself in a very different entrepreneurial world than the ones I’ve known in the past — a place of social networks, explosive growth (but often with few revenues), and a diminished need for institutional investors. In some respects, entrepreneurship in the 21st century is a lot more complicated; but in some important ways, it is a lot more fun.
One of my companies is called QikLife.com. You may have heard of Qik: It’s the technology that enables folks who use smartphones, such as the iPhone and the Nokia N95, to use their phones as video cameras and then stream the results directly to the Web. Several hundred thousand people are now using Qik and its competing technologies (there are no good ideas in tech that stay solitary for long), and they are now producing hundreds (soon to be millions) of videos each day. But what will happen to all of these videos? How will people organize them, and share them, and put them away in video scrapbooks for their descendents?
That’s what Qik asked Valley marketing executive-turned-blogger Tom Hayes and me. Our answer was to create a social networking site, which we called QikLife.com, designed both to capture and display the most interesting of these Qik videos each day (or “Lifecasts”) — and eventually enable those users to assemble their personal video scrapbooks.
The business of QikLife isn’t the point of this column. What is important is that thanks to modern blogging and Web 2.0 tools, Tom and I have been able (with the contracted assistance of a handful of code writers) to create what is now an international site by ourselves with almost no capital. None of this was possible a decade ago.
The second business is called Edgelings.com. Earlier this year, I grabbed a San Jose Mercury News off a table at my local Peet’s coffee shop — I hadn’t read the dead-tree version of my old newspaper employer in months — and was stunned to find how small the once-thick business section had become.
Indeed, the Merc now didn’t have enough of a news hole left to effectively cover its own home turf of Silicon Valley. And the San Francisco Chronicle was even worse, a ghost of its once-great self. Add to that the death of the dozen major tech-business magazines that had covered the Valley a decade ago — and the retreat of the trade magazines into narrow-focus Web sites — and it suddenly hit me that there was now a crying need for a mainstream business news site for Silicon Valley and the rest of the tech world.
And thus Edgelings.com, which three of us Valley veterans launched last week. Time from idea to execution: six weeks.
What is important about this second start-up story is that working out of our homes, again with almost no capital, we are attempting to do something that at the beginning of my career required a vast newsroom, an expensive computer network, a multimillion-dollar printing plant, office workers and a fleet of trucks. Now it’s just the three of us: two in Silicon Valley, the third in the woods of Western Massachusetts.
Our editorial meetings take place via conference calls and e-mails, and these days I find myself back to where I began: writing headlines, composing ledes and copy-editing. My work clothes are often a bathrobe or a pair of gym shorts, and my work day sometimes ends at 1 a.m.
Am I too old to be doing this? On the contrary, I think I’m just about the right age. We think of entrepreneurship as being a young person’s game, requiring the brashness and energy of youth. But what I’ve learned over the last 30 years in Silicon Valley is that youthful energy — and this is especially true of today’s Gen Y’s — comes in short bursts and is ill-equipped for the kind of long-term consistency needed to run a modern Web 2.0 social network.
Moreover, an awful lot of that energy — as was the case with my failed start-ups 20 years ago — is wasted on meaningless work. Far better to understand what needs to be done, what decisions must be made and then to just get on with it. That takes experience.
As for youthful brashness, I’ve found it has a tendency to give up too early or too late. Smart risk-taking means knowing when to stick with a troubled project when it has a chance of succeeding. It also means facing reality when failure occurs and walking away — instead of wasting time praying for a miracle. That too comes with experience: I’ve failed enough times not to fear failure, or public humiliation, anymore. Too old? Heck, there are times with these two new companies when I wish I was a little older and a little more experienced.
Economic downturns, like the one we are in right now, are the very best times to start new companies. The competition is distracted, talent is readily available, and you’re not doing anything anyway. And so I suspect there are thousands, even millions, of people out there right now dreaming of starting their own companies — but are afraid they haven’t the energy or the experience to do so. Or they fear the stigma of failing.
Well, don’t be afraid. Now’s your moment, whatever your age. If this damn fool can start two companies at the same time, anybody can start one.