Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number…
The two companies in the national spotlight the last couple of weeks, Snap (aka Snapchat) and Uber have some things in common. Chief among them has been a constant questioning of whether or not their leadership is qualified to run what could be Fortune 500 companies.
Both have faced calls to add “experienced executives,” insider parlance for adult supervision. Both have seen execs come in for short spells before departing. This has also happened to company’s such as Twitter, as well.
The problem in many of these instances is usually viewed from the outside as an issue of age difference. You hear this sometimes from people who either make a bad hire, and try to excuse it, or from those who move from a corporate or established entity to a hot young startup.
But there is something a bit more complex going on here. And so I spoke with a bunch of CEOs who are on the young side, younger than 35, to dig into how they’ve felt in these situations.
Most admitted that figuring out how to work with older more experienced employees had less to do with a difference in age than it does with a gulf between the experiences of CEOs and their charges. And there seems to be no way to avoid this very challenging part of running a startup.
Whether it is a VP or C-level employee hired to help in a new stage of growth for a venture or whether it is someone put in place by a board of directors or VC, this seems to always be a thorny situation.
As VentureApp CEO Chase Garbarino described it, “I fucked this up multiple times.” And he’s not alone. Almost everyone I spoke with said some version of the same thing.
One reason, as Garbarino explained it is that hires who typically come from corporate world don’t realize that the title they hold in their former established companies is not comparable to what might be described as the same role in a startup.
And this can cause confusion for both a young CEO or an experienced new hire. As Garbarino described it, “The CEOs don’t understand from day to day what they want and what this person has been doing.”
Tom Coburn, CEO of Jebbit, says one of the issues between young founders and experienced execs working together can be cultural. As his company has grown, he said he’s made some mistakes but learned from them to change how the company works.
An Coburn knows well how a vast cultural difference can slow a company. In its early days, the entire Jebbit team, all in their early twenties, lived in a single house together. When they made a few older hires as they grew, they made mistakes they didn’t even realize Coburn said. “We’d work all day and then go home, have a beer, and then start talking strategy again to late in the night,” he explained. “We would make key decisions.”
Later, another member of the team who didn’t live in the house pointed out how that type of operation could lead to issues. Some folks who were supposed to be key stakeholders, but who might have other responsibilities (part-time jobs, families) felt left out of process and started to get upset. “They were right,” Coburn said, “we just didn’t realize the impact of the way we were working together at the house.”
So Coburn made changes. The only time they have tactical meetings is at 4:00. No more decisions made in casual environments. There had to be a strict separation of home and work.
This can be hard for young founders for other reasons. As Drizly CEO Nick Rellas told me, “When you are 23 or 24, you want everyone to be your friend. It takes time to realize that you need to be the steward of the business and what it means to be the boss.”
“I had to figure out how to be an asshole,” Rellas added. “But I wasn’t ready for that at first.”
“People don’t want to talk about this because it’s sensitive,” Chase Garbarino told me. “The difference in culture thing is real even if people don’t want to talk about it.”
As Garbarino explained, he feels like, after having run Bostinno/Streetwise Media and now VentureApp, he’s had the experience of being the young CEO and now has a bit more experience to avoid some earlier mistakes.
He’s 32. And has already built two companies, raise venture funding, and sold Streetwise. Experience is the key, and only comes with time, whether that be 10 years in business or 25.
Boston’s younger CEOs will continue to screw up. But, they are getting older and wiser. Should be fun to continue watching their development.