This piece was originally posted in the Harvard Business Review.
In the early days of founding my current company, The Grommet, I met with a prominent venture capitalist. His firm had a summer incubator program for student entrepreneurs. As we chatted, two of those young in-resident founders walked by. The investor shook his head admiringly and said to me, “Those kids are here all hours of the day.” Then he paused thoughtfully and questioned, “Can you do that?”
I guess he assumed that, as a 47-year-old woman with three sons at home, I would turn into a pumpkin at 5pm every day — with the call of dinner preparation demanding my presence. I ignored the blatant bias and answered, “What do you mean could I work like that? I already do.”
Five years later I am at the helm of a company that grew its revenues 450% in 2013, and counts one in 200 Americans as a supporter. The young pair of founders I saw, who eventually raised over $50M in venture capital funding, are no longer at their venture.
There are two points to this story. I will leave one of those points — investor bias — to another time. But the second point — about the advantages of being a middle-aged company founder — is often overshadowed by a media archetype of start-up founders as hoodie-clad 20-something’s. In reality, studies show that one of the identifiable success factors in creating a high-growth start-up is having founders who graduated from college and were older at the time they started their companies, because they therefore tended to have more experience and more contacts to build successful large firms. In fact, the average age for founding a successful company is 40.
It’s not a revolutionary insight to expect that experience and networks matter.
However, in building The Grommet, I have experienced and observed that there is a hidden advantage to this life-stage: more mature adults tend to have more significant social and family supports to give them resilience to survive the brutal psychological assaults of creating a company. In other words, there are plenty of “credits” to balance the “debits” of kids, mortgages, and looming college tuitions.
For me, family provides a separate identity outside my company, a consistent outlet for rest and relaxation, and a safe haven to escape the relentless pressures of building a business. These social supports go far to replenish the necessary reserves of energy, courage, and tenacity that are essential to successfully leading a start-up.
But what about the kids anyway? With a family, people assume that children will pull the entrepreneur dangerously away from minding the store. Indeed, in the early years of The Grommet, the business itself did feel a lot like a newborn baby. And if I had had a real, live newborn, it would have been a desperate and impossible tug of war. The business required constant attention and it completely dominated my every waking and sleeping moment. Seeing me frequently preoccupied, one of my three sons learned to say, “Mom, you are off in email land again.” He noted the figurative steam coming off my brow and realized I was composing a response to a request or challenge (usually related to people or capital!) in my head.
But my sons were also teenagers, not newborns or toddlers. I had taught them plenty of critical life skills, like cooking. They did not need (or want) my constant presence and when we do have dinner together (always, but admittedly very late at night) they, or my husband, are as likely to have cooked the meal as me. We talked about the business constantly those first few years and they helped me think through issues, serving as an interested sounding board.
My sons saw firsthand that the first five years of the business were a relentless battle for survival. In fact, there were three distinct moments when the business was on the brink of extinction. At the most harrowing of those times, I prepared the boys for the worst and my youngest son forcefully replied, “You can’t quit now Mom. Look at all you have gotten through. What do you tell us when the going gets tough? I am telling you that now!” That exhortation was deeply, and uniquely, galvanizing for me. A mere financial investor could not have had that profound effect on my psyche and I pulled it out — yet again.
One advantage of having older children is they can directly appreciate the business milestones that my company experiences. Over time, I realized that my sons’ own identities came to include having a mother who is an entrepreneur. I was so tickled when my middle son made it a priority to show his visiting girlfriend our company’s offices. And when Fortune named me one of the 10 most powerful women entrepreneurs, my sons kept me humble, taking great amusement in awarding me membership in their list of “10 most annoying mother entrepreneurs”.
The bottom line is that my sons contribute energy and drive for me, rather than the reverse. They are the secret weapon in my psychological armor.