I recently left work at an early stage startup, which was certainly the most interesting and intense four years of my career. As a fifty-something in a company of twenty- and thirty-somethings, I was like a tourist in another country, sometimes feeling quite “foreign,” even while totally intrigued.
Early on at the job, I remember sitting in a WeWork conference room as two developers mapped out a set of features we would be adding and talked about switching from “waterfall” to “agile.” Everyone else in the room nodded. I had no idea what they were talking about. I kept quiet, not wanting to reveal my ignorance.
Even culturally, I was sometimes tripped up. Once at a social event, fellow team members swapped stories excitedly about how cool the Hidden Temple was. I sat in silence, assuming this was a destination in Thailand I had missed. Eventually someone mentioned they had been to the studio set in Florida. Turns out Hidden Temple was a Nickelodeon show in the 90s! I hesitated to admit that the only Nickelodeon I had watched was with my kids, long ago.
And sometimes knowledge gaps really mattered. When I left the company, I needed to dig into the issues about exercising stock options and related taxes. ISO vs. NQO? Form 409 A? Liquidation preference? Help! I quickly came face-to-face with the complexities of shares and just how little I really understood.
I was embarrassed when I didn’t know things. While I had expertise in my own field, I was new to the environment in which I was practicing it. Now, I wonder, why didn’t I just ask colleagues when I didn’t know something? I think the answer lies in my own version of ageism: Being several decades older than everyone else in the room, I was too quick to think my gaps were age-related so sought out the information via search bar. Google does not judge.
Self-conscious moments aside, I loved my startup life. The job was stimulating, and I learned new things every day. It was easy to see my impact and contribution. It was a lot of fun working with younger colleagues.
I love Chip Conley’s book, Wisdom at Work: The Making of a Modern Elder, because it highlights the benefits of the two-way exchange between generations in the workplace. I very much experienced this.
At this young company, I learned new technologies, new processes, and new ways of approaching innovation. In return, to my colleagues I could offer my experience and how we could apply organizational structure to a growing company, hiring, meetings and management.
This give-and-take was not without its tensions. For every satisfaction I felt at learning something new or contributing, there was an equal and opposite frustration when what seemed so obvious to me from experience, was resisted by others.
In an established company you inherit proven processes, templates and relationships, which can simply be improved when necessary. In a startup, everything is built from the ground up–from the product features to the email copy to the customer base. And maybe not right the first time.
I think startups offer incredible opportunities for those in midlife and beyond who have an openness to learn. I created StartupDecoder.com as a hub of resources for those who are jumping into the game. It’s the place I wish I had to help me through those knowledge gaps.
Those of us over 50 have a lot to offer young, fast-growing companies, and vice versa. I hope more and more of us will keep our minds open and seek out these opportunities–and conversely that the tech world will keep the doors open and invite us in.
Nancy Branka is founder of Startup Decoder, which offers resources on startup employment for those over 45. She headed up content for an early-stage startup for four years, and prior served as managing editor of Executive Travel magazine, an American Express Publishing title. She lives in the SF Bay Area.