Too old for the hoodie? Startups still need you

John Doe is a top dog in the local subsidiary of a Multi-national Company. He is part of the Country Management Board and has grown from scratch to get to a position where he believes he has finally made it. This primarily translates into a General Management role, either managing people, liaising with HQ or doing Program Management. The core skills that he was known for haven’t been used in a while and he has fallen prey to the managing people and managing work politics malaise.

When there is a rising tide, things are hunky dory – the economy is doing well and along with it the industry and the company are delivering multiples of the GDP growth rate. But what happens when one, two or heaven forbid all start taking a nosedive?  

It is one thing for the economy to go through the normal sinusoidal trajectory, but completely another when the economy is undergoing a structural change. Sunrise industries start falling by the wayside, roles done by multitudes go down dramatically and hot skill-sets in the market are something that your young nieces and nephews (or in some cases even your own kids) seem to have. Substitute the country, company, sector with wherever you happen to be, the only constant is the near 40 (plus or minus 5 years), – YOU!

If you happen to be in this bucket, then you are looking at an uncertain future as companies themselves are grappling with how to deal with this VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) world. They are torn between managing the short term with the long term by keeping up with all the technology changes in the market place. If you have an activist stakeholder who’s looking to break up the existing mother-ship to unlock value, then the goalposts shift even further.

The primary task becomes one of reigning in the costs. When HQ looks at swinging the axe, guess which are the necks that stick out to fall by the wayside – the one’s who pose a significant cost without adding, at least in the company’s eyes, commensurate value.

So that’s the corporate side of things. It has happened before, will happen now and it most certainly will happen in the future. Schumpeter’s dance of divine destruction and resurrection will continue ad infinitum.

There has been another dynamic at play over the last few years – the startup space.

It has become exceedingly cheaper to start off something on your own. What would cost millions of dollars for the IT infrastructure is available at a fraction of the cost with the added advantage of not having to manage it on your own. Add to this, how each and every industry is being redefined by a tool that enables you to conduct business on a smart-phone at the time and place of your choosing – software.

All these variables have made it a young person’s game – or that’s what the business publications would have you believe – what with the emphasis on awards for Entrepreneurs below 30, how someone in his 20s launched his second or third startup, how someone started up straight out of college.

So when you start looking at what is the next big wave and how do I ride this one out, startups don’t necessarily figure in your top 3 places to be in. The prevailing perception is that it is best done when you are young – the risks associated are too high for the middle-aged me, I don’t have the skill-sets that the startups desire and how will I work with kids who are a different generation.


Let’s look at what’s happening in India since it is gaining big traction off-late.

There was a 300% rise in startup funding in India this year and the number of deals exceeds even that of China. The list of startups getting funded has moved beyond the flavor of the season e-commerce, taxi, hotel aggregators and food tech startups to practically everything that can be disrupted through technology. Each of these startups will need to fill up mid to senior level positions (Product, Finance, Sales, Marketing, Operations) if they are to have a whiff of a chance to pull off the bets that investors have taken on them. Do the math and it’s evident that we are talking big numbers. So being a Founder or a Co-Founder is not the only way to jump on this bandwagon.

At this stage in your career, the money is important (when is it ever not?). But increasingly at this point, you are looking at leaving a legacy – something that makes you look forward to going to work when you wake up and contribute meaningfully so that you can claim a few years down the road that you were part of building this thing that every investor and job seeker is raving about. Startups present themselves as the single biggest wealth generation vehicle other than the inheritance from your favorite uncle.

But, of course, like all endeavors it is not a bed of roses. There are the Decacorns and there are busts, there are UbersAirbnbs and then there are FabMyspace along with the innumerable failures of the 2000 dotcoms that continue to cast their shadows even after all these years. In an upcoming post, we will try to work our way through this deluge so that some sort of a path emerges to chart a course for a startup career.

The thing to remember is that you clearly are carrying a tool bag of skill-sets (albeit with some rusty core skills) that have been of value before and are certainly relevant even today. As Tom Smith says in Seabiscuit – “you don’t throw a whole life away, just ‘cause he’s banged up a bit”.

Till then, keep fanning the dreams of being part of the next Unicorn and proactively looking for startup options before fate forces your hand.

Disclaimer – Depicted scenarios are purely for illustrative purposes. All resemblances to real-life are purely co-incidental. No humans were harmed during these cataclysmic changes (at least by me)!

For all the views, comments and likes, I’d like a say a big thank you. Please keep the comments coming, it’s the only way to initiate a dialog.