Founders

These are the things only founders over 40 can tell you

There’s a great romance about youthful founders. Startups must be full of adolescent dropouts who’re writing code, changing the world, and worrying about zits. You can hardly blame anyone for lionizing the young; Mark Zuckerberg, the preeminent founder of our time, launched Facebook when he was only 20 years old.

But the adoration doesn’t match reality. According to the Kauffman Foundation, a think tank focused on entrepreneurship, the average age for a successful startup founder is about 40 years old.

And a recent study (PDF link) from MIT, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and the U.S. Census Bureau also found that the most successful entrepreneurs are middle-aged. They discovered that startups with growth in the top 1% of their industry had founders with an average age of 45.

The study found that correlation between success and age had a simple explanation: experience matters and older people have more of it.

Why experience is golden

Anna Gong, CEO of Perx Technologies

Anna Gong, CEO of Perx Technologies

It’s a perspective that Anna Gong, in her early 40s, CEO of Perx Technologies and a veteran of working with four previous startups in Silicon Valley, agrees with. “The mature executives have experience that’s immensely valuable. Back in my Silicon Valley days, many startups hired senior executives to help young founders scale and exit profitably.”

It’s all about execution, Gong says. “The startups we built that had traction were mostly run by seasoned executives who’d left companies like Intel, IBM, and Sun Microsystems. It’s not about if you dropped out of school, it’s about the management and the leadership. Experience is immensely helpful when guiding a growth stage company.”

How founders don’t have to take big risks

“I have a risk-averse approach to entrepreneurship. I did it in my free time, which is a lot of work, but it’s something I recommend.”

— Erwan Mace, Founder and CTO of Bitsmedia

But you don’t have to be a serial entrepreneur and eat ramen from age 20 to 40 to become an experienced founder. Erwan Mace was the VP of Technologies at Vivendi Mobile Entertainment, a large multinational corporation, before he moved back to Singapore. “I didn’t want to rush into a new job,” Mace says. “So in the meantime, I started a company.”

That was the birth of Bitsmedia, a startup that built apps for mobile. But two years into running Bitsmedia Google approached Mace with a job offer.

Erwan Mace, Founder and CTO of Bitsmedia (left) and Nik Emir Din

Erwan Mace, Founder and CTO of Bitsmedia (left) and Nik Emir Din

“We were still small,” Mace recalls, “and none of our apps had really taken off. The Muslim Pro app had been launched the year before, and although it was showing some traction, it was still slow. So I joined Google, and in the evening and weekends, I continued working on Muslim Pro by myself.”

After a year at Google, Muslim Pro gained momentum, and at the age of 39 (editor’s note: close to 40!), Mace left Google to focus on Bitsmedia and Muslim Pro. “The decision was easy enough to make,” Mace says. “The revenue from Muslim Pro became equal to my salary at Google, so there was little risk. I have a risk-averse approach to entrepreneurship. I did it in my free time, which is a lot of work, but it’s something I recommend.”

But Mace was clear he didn’t start his own company just for the money. “I’m a hands-on guy,” he explained. “I had high-profile jobs, which meant less of that. I missed getting my hands dirty, creating something of my own. So no matter what, whether it was a viable business or not, I felt the need to work on my own stuff in my free time.”

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What mindset can tell you about success

“I distinguish between people with internal and external motivation.”

— Hon Meng Moh, Co-Founder and Director of The RightU

This internal drive is something Hon Meng Moh feels is essential for older founders. At 50, Moh has been a serial entrepreneur. He co-founded iFast Corporation at 31, which listed on the SGX in 2014. At 43, 45 and 47, he co-founded three more companies and has invested in several others.

“I distinguish between people with internal and external motivation,” Moh explains. A person who’s attracted by the image of being an entrepreneur, for example, or someone who wants to make a lot of money, is externally motivated.

“When the going gets tough,” Moh says, “and the going will really get tough, these guys are going to think of easier ways to make money. As opposed to people with internal motivation — entrepreneurs who are so passionate about an idea they can’t imagine doing anything else — who tend to persevere longer.”

This inner drive fuels the decisions an older entrepreneur will make. “For someone with internal motivation, age becomes less of a thing, and I find they’re able to take quite a bit of suffering.”

Hard-won wisdom from founders over 40

So what can founders and entrepreneurs of all ages learn from founders over 40?

Don’t do it for the money.

“A lot of people think it’s easy money because you keep reading about successful apps,” Mace says. “They couldn’t be more wrong. Only people with passion, a lot of work, and also a bit of luck, might turn a startup into a successful business. In most cases, it won’t be successful. But if you’re doing something you’re passionate about, you won’t be wasting your time.”

Build your network.

“The number of contacts is more important than your idea,” Moh says. “You can access capital and people from your contacts, so your network must be wide. If you sit there thinking your idea is great but you have no network and no money, I don’t think it’s going to do well. You’ll find that ideas aren’t worth that much, it’s whether you have the network and the capital to pull it off.”

Find the fire.

“I came from China to the US and struggled through all sorts of trials and tribulations,” Gong says. “You have to stand out from the rest, but how do you stand out when you’re a minority, female, and in tech; where there aren’t that many females? My upbringing taught me grit. For me, it’s about where you come from, what struggles you’ve experienced, and what’s that fire in your belly that makes you strive for excellence?”

We celebrate #MothersinTech this May!

As we celebrate Mother’s Day this month, we have the honor of having these three inspiring women in the technology and innovation ecosystem share their views on managing motherhood and leading a career in technology startups. In this article, we hope to highlight their struggles, share some tips and tricks on how to make it work and debate on the definition of work-life balance.

(From left) Melisa Teoh, CMO of CXA Group which aspires to transform employee benefits in Asia by shifting spending from treatment to prevention; Ee-Leen Tan, Chief of Global Expansion of Ninja Van, a series B last-mile fulfillment tech startup; Karena Belin, Co-Founder of W Hub, an online community-based in Hong Kong that connects stakeholders in the startup ecosystem.

(From left) Melisa Teoh, CMO of CXA Group which aspires to transform employee benefits in Asia by shifting spending from treatment to prevention; Ee-Leen Tan, Chief of Global Expansion of Ninja Van, a series B last-mile fulfillment tech startup; Karena Belin, Co-Founder of W Hub, an online community-based in Hong Kong that connects stakeholders in the startup ecosystem.

Motherhood Versus A Career In Tech Startups

“Managing motherhood and a career is challenging in any business,” quoted Melisa when we asked about how different it is juggling motherhood and a career in tech startups as compared to corporate. She further explained that she has been fortunate to have great employers so far, so it has not been much of a difference. However, she acknowledges that startups are like newborn babies that fill you with excitement and anticipation but also demand persistent nurturing until they reach adulthood. The ability to experiment, innovate and move swiftly in startups can be addictive for people who enjoy the freedom to create and make an impact with their ingenuity. At CXA, health and wellness are a priority. Everyone is encouraged to set time aside for their personal wellness, and new moms are provided with a nursing room while parents are given the flexibility to work remotely when the need arises.

Working in startups is not all a bed of roses too. Hence, when we hear what Ee-Leen has to say about the work that comes with the flexibility, we can’t agree more.

“Startups offer slightly more flexibility compared to corporates - It does not mean you work less (often it’s the opposite!) - but, it also means one can better manage one’s time”
— Ee-Leen

Karena tells us that being her own boss gives her such a sense of purpose that she ends up with less time at home. However, with greater flexibility, she can choose moments where she can have higher quality time with the family and yet have the satisfaction of making an impact with her start-up.

Work And Family: How Do You And Your Spouse Make It Work?

Melisa shares that she and her husband work together to ensure that their priorities are met. They set aside family time to share daily experiences with each other. Throughout the week, they find opportunities to combine various strands of priorities to maximize their use of time. Here are some examples of how Melisa and her partner accomplish it: Use the first and last meals of the day as opportunities to connect with each other by learning through cooking or discussing different topics over meals, combine their exercising schedule with their daughter’s sports activities and lastly, create social events around shared interest with their daughter’s friends and parents.

Alternatively, you could rope in your parents or extended family to help with taking care of your children so it frees you up to concentrate on your career during working hours, knowing that your children are in safe hands. As Ee-Leen says,”any help from family is precious!”

Work-Life Balance - A Matter of Expectation

At ConnectOne, we believe that work-life balance is a matter of expectation and there is no single formula to having it all. The definition of quality and quantity between work and family is so diverse that what makes one mother ticks the box that she has great work-life balance may be frowned on by another. Our consultants have gone on long sabbaticals to see to family matters - and come back renewed and motivated to work hard!  We have a culture of ownership and encourage remote work as long as it helps us stay productive!  

Find your balance and stand with it. Find your song and sing it out. Find your cadence and let it appear like a dance. Find the questions that only you know how to ask and the answers that you are content to not know
— Mary Anne Radmacher


And finally, to the moms that are reading this… Thank you! We hope you have been inspired by our #MothersinTech who continue to work for something they genuinely care about while balancing the demands of a family.