It must be the soft prejudice that goes most without saying in the worlds of technology and start-up entrepreneurialism — that it’s a young person’s business. From the nested mythologies of our most pre-eminent social network and its founders, to the whole practice’s gruelling and often family-unfriendly pursuit of the gains of unsociable working hours, — if there’s one thing you’re less likely to find front-and-centre in the diorama of startup idealism than a defaced California Republic flag or a tablet of consequentialist ethics, it’s people over 50 (or much over 40, for that matter).
There is a generational factor behind Big Tech’s worship of youth that at least partly explains the absence of elder statespeople at the proverbial table — the fact that the industrial changes brought about by the startup movement have been both swift and comparatively recent. That has engendered a competency lag. As one anonymous young founder complained to Forbes, in their midst of the pursuit of experienced, older professionals for their company, “Our industry is brand new…Older candidates don’t bring any relevant experience, but come with a higher paycheck.”
The youthcentrism of Big Tech is not solely attributable to a skills deficit, however. Another statement by another, equally anonymous founder struck with a rather different ring to it — “The rest of our office is young. They just don’t fit with our culture.” If the former statement suggests that older professionals may themselves be missing out on the bounties of a still relatively new industry set, then the latter suggests a formidable myopia on the part of the ‘industry’ as an undifferentiated whole as to professional value they may not be drawing from the ensilvered segment of the workforce.
It was with some such things in mind — made all the more pressing in their effect by the onset of the global pandemic — that Suzanne Noble and Mark Elliott founded the Startup School for Seniors. An eight-week online program based in London, it aims to endow over-50s with those competencies required to find success as a startup founder: to discover the beauty of Agile, lean team structures, and the Canvas model; to develop a taste for the thrill of moving fast and breaking things.
Inasmuch as it does so, it would also aspire to exalt in and harness the enormous variety and vitality of a social demographic often given no greater means of expression in general discourse than wooden stereotypes. Mark sat down with us to discuss the origins of the project, and how it’s (re)training the sights of a generation of over-50s on an entirely new mode of ambition.
Back to School
Max: For the sake of our readers who haven’t heard about the Startup School for Seniors before, give us an idea of some of the events which inspired you to found it.
Mark: Well, I’ve worked in startup programs for some time with people like the Design Council, and The Central Research Labratory, and with accelerators at Imperial, Goldsmiths, SOAS; and on my work on accelerators I notice that older people had different challenges, and were often not rejected by the program arts, but had a different experience to other people, that indeed programs weren’t designed for older people.
So that’s one part of the background. Another part was we’ve realized that older people are going to be really adversely affected by the pandemic in a way that was going to permanently affect their future lives, in a way that younger people weren’t, because younger people would be able to start again, but older people wouldn’t. Yeah, and Suzanne, my co founder, and I were kind of determined to do something different, in order to help people like us; we’re both over 50. We are both portfolio people, I can say that. Suzanne is, I guess, a serial tech founder. I’m not particularly; I founded a couple of tech jobs; I’ve worked in a unicorn which we sold in last century, and I’ve had my own electronics company.
So, lockdown came, and we decided to push button on the Startup School for Seniors and go with it. I’m a fanboy of the startup movement. I ran the London Lean Startup night, for quite a few years ago, and almost 5000 people. When I was curating that, I just wanted to help people who weren’t part of this tech ecosystem, yet to get more best practice about how lean can help you do things a lot quicker, easier and faster.
“I noticed [older people] would be more nervous of coming to a Lean Startup night unless they felt that they were already an expert in something, whereas younger people… came with the attitude that ‘I know nothing, so I’m just gonna go for it!’”
Even at the lean Startup Night, I noticed that older people who were looking to start something had a different attitude. I noticed they would be more nervous of coming to a Lean Startup night unless they felt that they were [already] an expert in something, whereas younger people were keen to get going. Older people were nervous about what they didn’t know, about starting up, whereas younger people [came with the attitude that] “I know nothing, so I’m just gonna go for it.” Whereas for older people, it was more “Oh, my goodness, I don’t know about that.”
So that helped understand why something specifically for people over 50 was needed. And, you know, Startup School for Seniors; the ‘seniors’ [part] is very tongue in cheek. Some of our seniors have small children under five, and some of our seniors have had their parents die during lockdown. So we’re a very varied bundle of people at lots of different stages of life, even though from the outside we may be all Yeah, you know, I mean, yeah, cool.
Max: What’s the typical process for attendees of the school?
Mark: So we have an application process, where people tell us where they’re at. Then it’s an eight week program, delivered primarily by video, with check ins, and zoom calls, for example, to build community and also for people to share their experience of starting up.
“At the School, we have a great gender balance. We have a great ethnicity balance. We have people from who have been successful in life and been turfed out.”
Our videos are for people over 50 by people over 50. All of the examples that we interview, all of the founders that we interview are over 50. All of the experts that we interview are over 50, because one of the key elements of other programs is that what people are led to aspire to. We know it’s really important to show people like us, to people like us. So we have a great gender balance. We have a great ethnicity balance. We have people from who have been successful in life and been turfed out. And we have people who have not been successful in life or who have an idea about what they want to do.
Some of those people have aspirations just to learn a bit of money. And some of those people are turning their lifelong dream or that thing that’s really niggled them for the last four years into some kind of reality. So we have non-technical founders founding technical solutions. We have people wanting to become self employed, we have people who want to make hats, people who want to make cards. So the range of our outcomes is amazingly diverse.
But, frankly, it’s a similar process that they’re all going to go on. They need to understand their customers; they need to know what they’re going to offer them; they need to try it out; they need to think about how they proposition and what branding, is about how they’re going to deliver things that they don’t technically know about themselves, and how they’re going to engage with people, what motivates people, all of this kind of stuff.
It’ll be the same for everybody, whether they’re selling cushions on the market, or whether they’re somebody who is aiming to create a Facebook — well, I’m not going to give the game away just yet!
Max: In terms of in terms of the way that you’re setting up your your students, is it primarily for solo founders? Are you doing a mix of solo and dual founders? Are you trying to put core teams together?
Mark: It can be anything. We have founders who have gone on to be self employed. We have solo founders who need to bring other co founders in and who maybe don’t know that they need to bring co founders in yet. We’ve already started [instructing on] how you work with people. By work week two at the School we’d seen people ready forming interest groups, if you like, of similar ideas. We want to move forward in this way, and [teach them] how do we talk to technical people? How do we talk to creative people?
“We have founders who have gone on to be self employed. We have solo founders who need to bring other co-founders in and who maybe don’t know that they need to bring co founders in yet.”
Max: That’s another question I was interested to ask, because I think even regardless of the actual composition of certain hackathons, or accelerator programs similar to your Startup School, you can often find that people don’t necessarily have a common vocabulary by which they can relate to one another. I wonder if you’ve found that to be a challenge in your first two weeks so far?
Mark: It’s not a challenge, it’s a reality. Real people don’t understand startup gibberish. So we take it from the basis that these are people who have not been through the startup ecosphere, who talk English and don’t yet know the particular vocabulary, of Agile, of pivoting, of user stories, or all of all of these things. These are actually a specific technical terms around startup, and we start from the premise that people need to have things explained.
They may or may not need things explained. But we explain them so that if they haven’t met them before, so they understand the concept.
For example, we’ve taken our students through the majority of the Canvas model before we define the Canvas model, so that they understand all about the customer and the customers problems, and have stopped themselves talking about their solution [too early on].
Max: And what’s the process for your Senior startup founders after they’ve graduated from the program?
Mark: The program afterwards is the continuation of the community. We have a closed Facebook group, and we restream a lot of useful best practice [information] through that community. This builds on some offline work from an organization called Advantages of Age, which is started as a lobbying group to change the attitude of mainstream media to people over 50.
A Different Kind of Experience
Max: Startup culture, having historically been such a young person’s game, is accordingly tethered to a young person’s kind of mentality. What benefits do you seen coming to the wider startup ecosystem by having, as it were, a greater collective life experience being introduced to the practice?
Mark: Historically your startup has a better chance at success if you found it between the ages of 45 and 55. An older person brings that life experience, but I don’t take the view that young people don’t have life experience. Their life experience may not be long, but often founders, younger founders have met challenges or had a particular life experience which has brought him to this point wanting to do this thing.
“Why might older people make brilliant tech entrepreneurs? Because they ask “Why” in a different way in a different aspect than people from a technology generation would.”
In fact, it’s amazing how many older people can avoid some basic life [lessons] like understanding that you need to make profit from products. You know, it is crazy how much people can avoid it. But talking generically, which I don’t like doing : older people are less likely to give a fuck what people think. They’re more likely to be able to take on multiple inputs and regard them critically to find their particular way forward. They are also slightly more likely to be able to do things for free or hustle from other people, because they’re probably more used to having done that.
It’s also that they’ll probably look with some naivety at some technical things in the same way that children do, and just ask “Why” in a different way in a different aspect than people from a technology generation would.
But people in their 50s [coming to this field] do have particular challenges. It’s true that there are some silver surfers and there are some people are really a home with technology over 50, a bit like me I suppose. But there are people who haven’t necessarily bought in so the social media generation, who will not be at the forefront of all of the technical things. We have to help them get started.
Nevertheless, there are a lot benefits [with an older entrepreneur], around the way that we see the world or by the real life; that they’re likely to have the ability to be single minded, or have the ability to cope with being sparky and multi-threaded in thinking.
The Startup School for Seniors is a project affiliated with Advantages of Age. You can find out more about the school here. Wonk Bridge has not been incentivised to provide any recommendation for the school, though we believe it may be in our readers’ best interests to be informed of it.
 One has cause to wonder if the pair of them find it hard to distinguish themselves from one another.
 It trucks with wider patterns of demographic bias on account of age. In our simultaneous, and sometimes clashing, drives for equality and/or equity among various classes, the older and the old are among the least fashionable to invoke.