I literally grew up in this business, getting involved in digital marketing way back in 1994. When this business started it was a small, intimate group of people and most of those folks have grown, evolved and continued to reinvent themselves. Along the way it never mattered how old you were. It only mattered how smart you were, how much you tried and what results you were able to achieve. Age was nothing but a number, except when you went into a client meeting and your clients were sporting the grey. Back then we joked about it, and my first start-up CEO even joked about coloring his hair grey to fit in. That was 1997. Things have changed a lot!
I read an article last week about industry vets in the Valley having plastic surgery so they can look younger and get jobs at start-ups. That makes me sad, annoyed and angry. There are literally thousands of companies in the ecosystem who NEED the kind of veteran leadership and knowledge that only comes from experience.
Regardless of what you do, experience only comes from time. When I was younger and relatively senior in the organization, I was accused of being a bit arrogant, and I completely agree with that assessment. I was arrogant. I was a bit difficult at times. I needed to grow up. I improved because of the good leadership and mentorship around me. I call that experience.
Now there’s something to be said for unbridled enthusiasm and talent, which can be present regardless of age. There are also hundreds of young leaders, whether they are CEOs of start-ups or in other leadership positions, who are proving to be successful. I don’t take anything away from them at all -- they are special people. That being said, I can almost unequivocally guarantee that if you ask them how they have been successful, they will attest to a balance between pure talent and mentorship from someone in a successful position who they have tapped into for advice. I call that experience by proxy.
Discrimination by any criteria at all is wrong, but ageism is one that gets overlooked because it’s impossible to prove, regardless of how clear it can be. I personally know a bunch of people who are seasoned, experienced vets in this business, all of whom have been successful entrepreneurs and operators at companies that have sold or gone public. Every one of them would be valuable to smaller company looking to grow. Larger companies and more established brands recognize the value in experience and tend not to worry about age as much as the start-up community, which is ironic because large brands are the ones that are always looking for the kinds of innovation that start-ups represent.
How can these two worlds coincide? How can start-ups gain the experience they need to be successful, while big brands be infused with the kinds of innovative people who are not tied to any previous way of doing things?
Veteran leaders have more balance. They typically have families and they typically are looking to share their time with others more so than you do in your early 20s. Too often start-ups look at those as negative attributes, whether they voice it or not. Veterans also tend to cost more from a salary perspective, and most early-stage companies are afraid to assume that kind of commitment prior to, gulp… the dreaded word… revenue!
My advice to start-ups looking to succeed: Get creative! What these people bring in terms of experience, many also bring in terms of creativity. Experienced people may require a little more base, but they also tend to be accountable to metrics that drive business success. They are able to sell ideas to customers faster, and in many cases have relevant experience that can help you avoid the mistakes they probably made along the way. That saves you both time and money.
So the next time you have two qualified candidates, weigh the benefits well, because your predisposition to one side or the other may come back to haunt you. And along the way, stop discriminating against anyone at all. Hire based on one thing: smarts. I can also guarantee this will help your business in the long run.