Experience – the best teacher for starting a small business

I attended a lecture recently hosted by Swinburne University Centre of Transformative Innovation. The guest speaker was Professor Alan Wong the Managing Director of IND Technology. Professor Wong spoke of his journey to develop the highly successful business IND Technology to commercialise the new technology he created and patented. In response to a question from the audience asking how he learned business skills given his study and experience was electrical engineering, he said he wasn’t taught by anyone, hadn’t attended any courses on how to run his business, it was just through experience.

Now I would guess Alan to be well below his 50s so not considered mature-aged but what he said really resonated and struck me as very wise. Experience is what helped him succeed. He had three previous business failures and he took those learnings into his next business venture. He surrounded himself with other wise and experienced people, he listened to their advice and off he went. He didn’t give up when his earlier attempts didn’t succeed, he didn’t lose confidence, he learned and took his learnings to the next venture till he achieved the right formula for business success. I realise I have oversimplified his business journey and he himself represented his journey with a roller-coaster infographic but still the failed businesses in his past taught him everything he needed to keep going and keep trying until it worked. I wonder where he will be in another 10-20 years? No doubt doing something new and exciting.

Alan’s comment that he wasn’t taught by anyone but rather learned by his mistakes got me thinking, are mature-aged entrepreneurs more likely to be successful than younger people and, if so, why?

Here is what I found. The answer is overwhelmingly “yes”. Take out the exceptionally successful 20 somethings tech start-ups, Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Mark Zuckerberg and all studies into this point to over 45 year old’s being more likely to succeed in starting a business than a younger person. But why? Can it really be just about experience?

Well, sort of. Alex Maritz writes, “Our findings indicate older entrepreneurs have accumulated business and life experience, knowledge and skills, social networks and resources that better equip them for success” in his article The fallacy of youth: Why middle-aged entrepreneurs do better than their younger competition written in 2021. He goes on to suggest that maybe governments should be looking at encouraging mature-aged job seekers to start their own businesses rather than support them to seek employment.

For many, this may be a great option, and the next time I have my advocacy hat on I will be supporting this, but I believe we need both. Not everyone we encounter at COTA Victoria who is looking for work in their 50s and 60s would be in a position to start their own business, either financially or emotionally. But many may be able to do so with a little support. There will still be others who either don’t want to run their own business, after all, it is a risk and potentially long hours and stress, or even with support don’t have the right life experience. But for those who just need the confidence to give it a go or even a small amount of initial investment capital to get them going its worth considering. Especially as the data points to mature age entrepreneurs being more likely to succeed. So, if you have a mature-aged person in your life who is considering starting a small business, tell them to go for it, statistics point to it being a great decision.