Six Ways to Befriend Future Tech Billionaires
May 26, 2013 Editor 0
David Karp, who sold Tumblr to Yahoo for $1.1 billion, is one more in a line of twenty-somethings and even pre-twenty-somethings whose technology innovations have made them a fortune.
We’ve seen this before. In the 1990s, young techies with purple hair, ponytails, and earrings (that was the men) disrupted boardrooms; in the 2000s, they wear hoodies. College dropouts such as Mark Zuckerberg have quickly created empires. Parents or future parents-in-law have lent their kitchen tables and garages, as Sergey Brin’s mother-in-law-to-be Esther Wojcicki did for Google.
Tumblr’s Karp takes all this one step further. He dropped out of high school at his mother’s urging, and bypassed the garage phase to go directly to New York City offices.
This an extreme version of American culture in action. Historically, the U.S. was the first nation in which the young routinely taught their parents. Parents are pals, or angel investors in their kids’ ventures. Some venture capital firms go beyond college campuses to look for high school students with good ideas, as David Fialkow, founder of General Catalyst (and a friend) said recently.
Added to this is a rising disdain for large companies, or establishments of any kind. When a Twitter commentator referred to an idea as “that’s so Fortune 500,” he wasn’t offering a compliment.
Does this mean that older generations have nothing to teach the next (except on a short Khan Academy math video)? Are the founders of new digital startups flourishing without seeking the “adult supervision” that used to be a tech company norm (the way Google’s young founders brought in Eric Schmidt as CEO until Larry Page was ready)?
Before Karp syndrome becomes the new version of “don’t trust anyone over thirty” reasoning that prevailed during earlier eras of student protests, let’s consider the reasons older generations can serve as sources of wisdom for young entrepreneurs. I’ve observed six characteristics among digital entrepreneurs that suggest room for inter-generational relationships:
They are learning all the time. The learning might not take place in formal settings, but entrepreneurially-oriented young people can be voracious and critical readers, devouring textbooks or online sources to learn a field fast when they don’t want to enroll in a course. On campuses, the line between “curricular” and “extra-curricular” is blurring, as peer groups pursue topics that might teach more than classes or at least feel more relevant. Internships, “after-school” apprenticeships like those offered by Citizen Schools, practical problems, and the chance for independent projects or business-building as part of formal schooling seems to encourage young people to stay in school longer, because school is more relevant — or at least that’s what some preliminary observations suggest. John Werner of TEDx Beacon Street (where I spoke), are organizing learning communities around TEDx speakers, wherever they are. Sharing knowledge-from-experience in online forums reaches young entrepreneurs and opens relationship possibilities.
They love mentors and thrive when they have them. Even more important than access to capital, some analysts say, is access to advice. New business incubators are becoming increasingly common in the U.S. and elsewhere; the best results come from those that provide access to sources of advice, which is why University-linked incubators show a slightly higher survival rate for new ventures after the crucial five-year mark, as my research overview for the HBS US Competitiveness Project showed. As many more young people try the David Karp/Mark Zuckerberg path, the demand for mentors increases. Mentors can be at the cutting-edge while sharing the benefits of experience — and perhaps getting a new business tool. In Massachusetts, some of us working on economic development for distressed areas have urged established companies to provide some space in their facilities for startups, whether related or not.
They appreciate great questions. While they don’t always like to be told how the world supposedly works, and might not know much history, they resonate with dialogue that allows them to express their views, and they like questions that get them thinking new thoughts along new directions. They can be cynical about praise, especially if it feels patronizing, but they like provocative give-and-take.
They need connections. They might have social media networks and tap crowd-sourcing or crowd-funding sources, but they don’t yet know very many people who are well-connected in worlds they might want to enter. Opening doors and suggesting contacts makes everything else you say seem wiser.
They work for food. Well, not exactly. But small investments can go a long way at the early stages of idea development for students who do not yet have families to support or expensive tastes. General Catalyst’s Fialkow urged a group of leaders to consider angel investing in young people for whom a thousand dollars is a lot of money; a modest pool could connect with dozens of young entrepreneurs. Adding mentoring and connections to the cash could increase the success potential.
They care about mission and values. The evidence keeps mounting. In a survey of young people interested in media and communications in Europe issued by Publicis Groupe, the results indicate that an expectation of “social responsibility” is now a given. They feel it is inextricably linked to business strategy. When they start their own businesses, the newer generations often have a social mission right from the start. When I ask students what they learn from CEOs of large established companies, the lessons often have to do with having inspiring principles and sticking with them. Finding ways to involve young entrepreneurs in social causes, or to find the entrepreneurs among those volunteering to do good, can create bonds. The social mission/business mission combination is powerful, as I showed in my book SuperCorp. Business plan contests increasingly include social entrepreneurs.
These six characteristics can guide the young to more readily learn from their elders, while older generations pass on new knowledge and opportunities. Wise older heads can help more startups succeed — and perhaps tumble onto the next Tumblr in the process.
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