[…] This excerpt was taken from an article written by Jessica Lunk on hatchbuck.com […]
By Charlene Brown
There is mounting evidence that entrepreneurs over the age of 40 may be more successful at building high-growth businesses than their younger, more visible counterparts. According to the authors of the study Age and High-Growth Entrepreneurship, “the average age of the people who founded the highest-growth startups is 45″ and “successful entrepreneurs tend to be middle-aged, not young.”
When I started my company, I was a physician working full-time as a Medical Officer at USAID. I loved my global public health career; I did meaningful work that took me to countries all around the world. Yet I was hungry to make a difference outside of my governmental public health career. So I quit my job and founded a tech startup in my forties.
As the research points to the success of middle-aged entrepreneurs, I feel it’s important for those of us who have started businesses in our forties to share the lessons we’ve learned. I hope that by sharing these lessons I will help other non-technical founders who want to pursue their dream of founding a technology company.
1. Develop an expertise in product management
I joined the Halcyon Incubator with an engineering colleague whom I met through Founder Dating, a matching site for potential co-founders. We were ready to conquer the world with our tech startup. Yet I didn’t understand the importance of product management to translate my vision into a technology product—and I also didn’t know I didn’t know this.
To be frank, I had not heard the words “product” and “management” together in a sentence before. The truth was I did not effectively manage product development in the early days of our company. I believe that a limited understanding of how to translate my vision into product management slowed our business progress by at least 12 months.
The core competencies of the best product managers include interviews, user testing, feature prioritization, road map planning, business-to-technical requirements, and more. I didn’t know how to effectively translate business requirements into small user stories or how to integrate them into a product road map. As you may have guessed, this posed a serious roadblock to getting our product built.
Please learn from my experience. Take a class in product management as soon as possible. As your company’s CEO, you need to know how to translate your vision into a product, and you need to know this even if you have a technical co-founder. Ultimately, you are the one responsible for your company and its product.
The good news is product management is a learnable skill, even for big-picture thinkers like me. You can train yourself to become a truly great product manager. There are online courses available through Coursera, Udemy, and other websites. Or you can take a classroom-based course at General Assembly or many other schools.
Regardless of how you learn, find a mentor and just learn. Again, learn about product management before you quit your job. In my opinion, product management skills may be more important than coding skills for non-technical founders.
Take-home message: Product management skills may be more important than coding skills for a non-technical founder.
2. Build competencies in digital marketing
Initially, I believed I would be able to use community organizing and outreach approaches and local partnerships to create some early wins for my tech startup company. I wanted to leverage my 15+ years of public health experience to generate some early wins locally. By doing things that don’t scale, I thought we could differentiate ourselves from the competition. Then, I would replicate those wins all over the country.
More than a year later, I learned that digital marketing is a more effective strategy to achieve the volume and reach needed for a technology startup.
I knew that social media was important and I posted personally, but I didn’t know enough about social media marketing. Digital marketing would become such an important ingredient in our job-seeker acquisition efforts, but I didn’t recognize that in the beginning. I knew that Google rankings were important and had heard about Google ads and search engine optimization, but I was unfamiliar with the nuts and bolts of SEO. More importantly I didn’t know enough, in the beginning, to know how to choose the right consultants to help us.
I ended up hiring a marketing consultant as a coach, signed up for an online course on conversion rate optimization, and started to experiment. Today we are in a better position to attract users to our business with digital marketing.
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If you don’t already work in digital marketing, you can build this expertise before you quit your job. Take the time to learn as much as you can about digital marketing. As a tech company CEO, you’ll need to understand enough to build an appropriate strategy and do the early legwork. This is likely to be true whether or not your company is a B2C or a B2B. As a founder, you may have to serve as your team’s first digital marketer. You will need to know the nuts and bolts of digital marketing to evaluate the right talent for your team.
Take-home message: You will need to know the nuts and bolts of digital marketing, even if it is just to evaluate the right talent for your team.
3. Don’t quit your job too early
I don’t remember the first time someone told me I should work on my business full-time. I just know that at some point, I came to believe that working on it full-time was the only way that I would be taken seriously. It’s an approach touted by Y Combinator founder Paul Graham. He once wrote, “Most founders of failed startups don’t quit their day jobs, and most founders of successful ones do.”
I worked part-time for six months and then quit (prematurely) to work on my business full-time. While I did gain credibility as a full-time founder, I do not believe that you need to quit your job to get started on your business.
As a mid-career professional, your life may be full of responsibilities. You may have a mortgage, family responsibilities, school expenses, and more. Grow your business on the side, test your concept with a minimum viable product, and pursue early revenue before quitting. You can do this while also meeting your day-to-day obligations.
I was surprised to learn that Richard Branson started both Virgin Records and Virgin Atlantic on the side. He writes, “The reason we’ve always started a new business while still working on an existing one is because it’s essential in entrepreneurship to limit the downside.”
Take-home message: Grow your business on the side, test your concept with a minimum viable product, and pursue early revenue before quitting your job.
Launching a tech startup: Final lesson
Running my own business has been one of my hardest and best endeavors, and I have learned more than I could have imagined possible. I hope that sharing some of the lessons I have learned will help you as you decide when and how to transition to working on your company full-time.
Good luck and be sure to have fun throughout the experience!
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