BUSINESS FORUM: What's stopping you from starting up?

Do you believe age is a factor in starting a business?

Oct 1st, 2011
Milton Chang

Q: Do you believe age is a factor in starting a business?

A: Age is definitely a consideration, but I am not sure where I come out on this question. One gets older and presumably wiser, gaining the experience to make better judgment calls and cultivating more contacts to draw upon to get the job done. On the flip side, personal responsibilities increase with age and there are likely to be more side interests and more distractions at a time when the business would need the undivided attention and focus of the founder.

There is also the question of energy level, which definitely declines with age. People are less likely to want to tackle ambitious projects as they get closer to retirement age. Bear in mind lifespans are longer these days, and an individual can be effective well into the 60s. Most companies, for example, now have a mandatory retirement age of 70 for their directors. Balancing these considerations, I suspect an optimum time to start a company is between 40 and 50.

But that does not mean you should not start a business at any age. I don’t contemplate starting another business by choice, but I certainly would still invest in a company and be a mentor to let someone more energetic do the heavy lifting. And if I do start, I would want to have a successor in my backup plan.

A parting thought is that you can give yourself more time by leading a healthy lifestyle. A recent Wall Street Journal article showed a 20-year study using a group of rhesus monkeys. The one fed with a full diet looked old and dilapidated, whereas the one that was fed a restricted diet with 30% less intake was vigorous and showed fewer signs of aging. So, eating a healthy diet and exercising may just be the simple formula to provide you with the healthy body and mind that will support you in building your dream business for a very long time.

Q: What are your thoughts on starting a business at this time, given the current poor economy?

A: Any time is a good time to start a business if you have an idea that makes good business sense! No doubt many investors would be nervous and pull back when the economy is down. But that borders on being silly, because an exit is likely to be many years away and it is impossible to make long-term economic predictions. A positive view is a rare commodity, and there are always contrarians out there looking for investments when few are willing.

You are not likely to get a “crazy” valuation, but you may not have to settle for a lower valuation, either, if you get multiple investors interested. But consider the advantages. Rent is lower; it is not unusual to get free rent for several months given all the vacancies out there. Hiring good people is also easier because many companies are cutting back to the bones. Vendors are more accommodating, and there may be surplus on the market waiting to get bought. That said, you don’t want to enter a business in an area that is in a long decline, or an industry that is likely to take some time to turn around. It is not wise to think you can buck a long-term trend if the evidence is there to support that trend.

In short, do not use the economy to provide a reason not to start. At some point you have to take the plunge. What is important is to do your homework, shake out your strategy, write a thorough business plan, and verify the business viability and potential. And if you still have the confidence that you can succeed, then by all means move forward!

MILTON CHANG is founder and managing director of Incubic Management LLC. He is also director of Precision Photonics, mBio, and Aurrion. Chang is a Fellow of IEE, OSA, and LIA. He has received Distinguished Alumni Awards from the University of Illinois and Caltech, is a trustee of Caltech, and is member of the Committee of 100.

Contact Chang at miltonchang@incubic.com with questions, and visit www.incubic.com for other articles he has written regarding entrepreneurship. See his book Toward Entrepreneurship at www.miltonchang.com.

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