Sick and tired of headlines that read “Hottest entrepreneurs under 30,” or “Top 40 under 40,” or “Top 20 under 20”?
Stories about technology entrepreneurs often ignore the grown-up crowd. But some of Canada’s hottest tech entrepreneurs launched their businesses after 40 – the arbitrary age that often acts as the upper limit of the “best of” lists.
“While there’s been a healthy increase in youth entrepreneurs in Canada, starting a business remains a solid option for those starting a second career – those with a little more stability,” said Dan Kelly, senior vice-president at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
Those with a few more years under their belts can use their extensive experience working for larger companies to spawn businesses of their own, Mr. Kelly said.
“That happens an awful lot in Canada, and is absolutely one of the leading avenues to entrepreneurship,” he noted.
Once entrepreneurs have been successful in one business, they frequently set up other ones, or buy their competitors, Mr. Kelly added. Such “serial entrepreneurs” might be more typical among business owners over 40, he said, but in that age bracket, there are also first-timers searching for new careers to move into the next chapters of their lives.
Although he doesn’t know whether age is an indicator of startup success, Mr. Kelly said (relatively) older entrepreneurs might be in better financial shape to take on the risk of a new venture.
Most self-employed Canadians are between the ages of 30 and 54, according to a 2009 report from Statistics Canada.
The proportion of self-employed workers in the 55-plus category rose by nearly 8 per cent to 26.8 per cent from 1997 to 2007, but that may simply reflect the aging population, the report noted.
Regardless, entrepreneurs far from disappear once they cross into their 40s.
These six technology entrepreneurs share their stories – and prove that 40 is nowhere near “over the hill” for startup success.
William Tatham, 52
Founder, director and CEO, NexJ Systems Inc.
Age is nothing but an advantage for third-time entrepreneur Mr. Tatham.
NexJ, a customer-relationship management company that uses cloud computing, is Mr. Tatham’s third startup. Since 1979, his entire career has been in the custom information systems business after he studied engineering at University of Waterloo, and did his first co-op at IBM.
Mr. Tatham started his first business in the late eighties before he founded Janna Systems in 1990, which Siebel Systems bought in 2000 for more than $1.4-billion.
Mr. Tatham signed a three year non-compete contract after the sale to Siebel and started to provide venture capital.
But he was itching to get back into the trenches. When the term was up, the ever-entrepreneurial Mr. Tatham “started incubating NexJ the following Monday” in 2003, he said.
This time around, Mr. Tatham said his experience will help breed success because he has built a reputation, over time, that allows him to win the confidence and the trust of his clients.
On top of that, his industry requires big-business experience under your belt that younger entrepreneurs might not have, he said.
“This is not an area where age works against you,” he said. “The enterprise software space does require a business background that is a barrier to entry to those under 30 entrepreneurs.”
Mr. Tatham said a major difference between his company and those started by younger entrepreneurs is that he targets industry professionals and enterprises. Companies started by younger people often aim for mass adoption.
Although much has changed since Mr. Tatham started his first business, he said the basics have remained the same.
“Managing relationships with the people that you do business with is fundamental to how you do business,” he said. “That part is a constant – just like how you can’t stop doing accounting.”
Leila Boujnane, 43,
Co-founder and CEO, Idée Inc.
Ms. Boujnane always wanted to be a doctor before she “accidentally” got into the technology industry.
She was visiting Toronto on sabbatical from medical school when she took a job in the early ‘90s with Toronto-based Algorithmics, a startup with five employees.
She found the problems they worked on to be so interesting that she immediately knew she’d found her place.
“I took a job with the startup without knowing anything about the field,” she said. “Once I started, I realized there was absolutely no turning back.”
In 2000, she started a company of her own – Idée.
She spent years at Idée developing a program, called TinEye, that uses images to search for other images on the Web. When TinEye was done development and ready to launch, Ms. Boujnane was 40.
“Everyone is familiar with text search, but images and videos also contain a lot of information,” she said. “We thought, what if you had an image and you were able to start your search using an image?”
Her company is the first in the world to have made the image comparison breakthroughs required to conduct this type of search, she said.
Although she’s in an industry typically seen as populated by the young, Ms. Boujnane said age doesn’t matter to people involved in technology startups – and it certainly doesn’t matter to her.
“We look at it more from a cowboy perspective. It’s more like: Are you a repeat entrepreneur or are you a one-trick pony? That’s really what validates what you’re doing, rather than your age,” she said.
For Ms. Boujnane, her career choice is simple. She is “still obsessed with tech” and doesn’t plan to leave the startup scene, no matter how old she is.
“The first time or second time is not enough,” she said.
James Lochrie, 40
Co-founder, chief technology officer, Wave Accounting Inc.
After 16 years working his way up through the ranks of a big accounting firm, Mr. Lochrie knew he needed a change.
“Waking up every morning and having to go into someone else’s office can be a drag,” he said. “I had the desire to blaze my own path and be under my own control.”
So Mr. Lochrie co-founded Wave as its chief technology officer. The startup, which launched in 2010, provides online accounting application for small businesses. It already has 40,000 users and employs 16 people, he said.
Although Mr. Lochrie called leaving a big firm the “best move” of his career, he said entrepreneurship hasn’t been an easy road to travel.
“I never realized how difficult it would be to do this with a family,” said the father of three.
It was tough for Mr. Lochrie to see his peers talk about saving for their retirements and their kids’ post-secondary educations while he was putting all of the money he had earned over his career into a startup.
“Taking away a regular-paying job and investing capital into a business was extremely stressful for me and for my wife,” he said.
There are major differences between young and “seasoned” entrepreneurs, he said. Younger people have the advantage of having fewer responsibilities and more time (and energy) to dedicate to their businesses, he said. On the other hand, older people have a “distinct advantage” in having learned from past mistakes and from the broad networks they developed over their careers.
Mobile computing has helped this tech entrepreneur deal with work and family responsibilities.
“I can be seen at swim meets, volleyball tournaments and ski practices with my tethered laptop plugging away while my kids are competing – keeping one eye on them and the other testing the latest feature we are developing.”
David Ossip, 45,
President, CEO, Dayforce Inc.
Mr. Ossip was born with entrepreneurship in his blood. And even though the serial entrepreneur sold a previous business, Workbrain, for a whopping $227-million (U.S.) in 2007, he had no plans to take the money and run.
“My dad was an entrepreneur and my grandfather was an entrepreneur as well,” Mr. Ossip said. “The concept of building something was always entrenched within me.”
So two years ago, Mr. Ossip started Dayforce, a real-time workforce management company in the same industry as Workbrain. Dayforce uses updated software-as-a-service technology.
The biggest difference in starting a business after the age of 40, he said, was that it was “quick” – quick to fund and quick to put together a team he could rely on.
“Over time you develop a team and a reputation, especially if you have a history of making money for investors,” Mr. Ossip said.
Four things are absolutely necessary to start a business – and experience doesn’t hurt for any of them, he said. Market research, reputation, a strong team, and the ability to attract financing are all key elements.
“Obviously if you’ve had several successes, you can both finance yourself and attract a lot of external finance,” he said.
Regardless of age, it takes a certain type of person to be a successful entrepreneur, he said.
“You have to be prepared to put the effort and the hours in – it’s very difficult to get a balance,” he said. “You do need the support system around you and you have to stay with the business as long as the business requires it.”
Nancy Peterson, 46,
Founder, CEO, HomeStars.com
When she took six months off to have her first child at 36, it was the first time that Ms. Peterson had that much time away from her whirlwind career, most recently as a marketing and brands director at Kraft Foods Inc.
She realized that, as she had been climbing the corporate ladder, she missed the “hands-on satisfaction” of business.
“For me, maternity was kind of a turning point,” she said. “You may work hard or harder as an entrepreneur, but you get to choose the hours you work.”
So, at the age of 40, she became an entrepreneur, launching HomeStars, a website where consumers go to compare contractors.
The site, which was inspired by Trip Advisor, is popular in six cities across Canada and is one of the top 600 most-visited websites in the country, she said.
When it comes to being an entrepreneur, age has its pros and cons.
The biggest advantage is having experience of working in large organizations, Ms. Peterson said. “Big-company experience really goes a long way in how you set up and structure yourself and build a team,” she said.
Although in the Internet world it’s easier than ever to work on a shoestring, she said her knowledge of sales and marketing from the consumer products industry is a benefit of her age. Her accumulated experience has been essential to building the HomeStars brand, she said.
But she does note the downsides of starting a business in the middle of a successful career.
“If you’re really trying to replicate your income from a big corporate job, it’s not going to happen with a really small cottage-y type idea,” she acknowledged.
“We’re at a great growing point, but it took three to four years to get there,” she said.
Michael Garrity, 43,
Founder, president, CommunityLend
Mr. Garrity launched CommunityLend, his first startup, when he was 41.
Previously, he worked as vice president of marketing and sales at ePost, Canada Post’s Internet billing service.
“I became very aware of both how monopolistic the banking environment is in Canada and how much debt personal consumers were bearing on a monthly basis,” he said.
“I wanted to find a solution that created more competition for banks and a better deal for consumers.”
His company essentially acts as an eBay for loans, he said, and his experience in a startup environment – he was recruited to join the founding team of ePost, which he helped to launch – has come in handy.
“There’s lots of drama in startups, and some can be quite overwhelming and stressful,” Mr. Garrity said.
He described how, at the beginning of a venture, losing a big client can “feel like the end of the world.”
“You can study about business success, you can read about it, you can get a degree in it, but there’s nothing that teaches you business success like business failure,” he said.
But that same feeling of failure taught him how to design an organization that avoided a lot of the pitfalls he’d already been through, he said.
“The more experience you have helps you contextualize the big wins and big losses,” he said.
“One of the downsides of being older is you certainly have more to lose – I’m married, I have two children and own a house,” he said. “You get naturally more risk adverse as you get older.”
“I wouldn’t be able to do this if I didn’t have the support of my wife and my family,” he added. “Between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. every day, I turn the Blackberry off. That’s time I spend with my family, period.”
But experience helps later-in-life entrepreneurs prioritize their responsibilities, giving them an advantage, he said.
“That’s the really good things about being an entrepreneur at this stage of my career,” he said. “You can keep things in perspective.”