Innovation comes from all people and places—not just the bearded and hoodie-clad 20- or 30-somethings you see on HBO’s Silicon Valley. In fact, recent research shows the exact opposite. Millennials are risk averse and the least entrepreneurial of today’s professionals—so “the startup generation” seems like an outright misnomer at this point. Nearly half of startup founders in 2015 were over 40, up roughly 10 percent from a decade earlier.
Need more proof? We turned to three business owners, founders, and innovators to bust a few myths about the “young” generation being the only ones with something to say.
Fact: Real innovators solve problems
Michael Shinn is the cofounder and CEO of Atomicorp, a cybersecurity orchestration and automation company. “The tech sector has created an interesting but weirdly incorrect perception that you can only start a company when you’re young,” he said. “That’s largely been caused by tech, which for the last few decades, has been dominated by consumer technology that tends to be more appealing to segments of the market that are more,” he paused, “impulsive, if you will.”
If you’re not a member of that young consumer segment, it’s much harder to know what the next “it” thing will be. Just ask 52-year-old Doug Evans, self-professed “juice evangelist” and founder of the epic failure that was Juicero. A cool, new gadget does not an innovation make.
“There’s a belief that if you can think of something disruptive, that’s enough,” said Shinn. Really, it’s industry expertise and business acumen that propel successful startups—not good ideas or technical competency. You can buy that.
Prior to launching Atomicorp in 2013, both Shinn and his brother and cofounder, Scott Shinn, worked on network security and management at the White House, developed the first commercial intrusion detection device, and coauthored several federal publications. Over the course of their 25-year careers, Michael said he and Scott kept seeing the same problem: a reliance on highly skilled—and highly expensive—experts to address cybersecurity needs.
He said it himself: “Not many companies can afford that.” Instead, he and Scott launched Atomicorp with the goal of creating an orchestration and automation tool easily useable for a non-technical user. The company had two thousand customers before hiring its first sales person.
Fact: Tech can mitigate cognitive biases
Rebecca Fair also worked for the federal government before cofounding her startup, Thresher. Fair was a national security analyst and had firsthand experience with the limitations of keyword-based data collection and analysis tools. “It turns out we’re terrible at coming up with keywords,” Fair said at a press conference with DCode42, a Washington D.C.-based accelerator that brings innovative technology solutions to the federal government. “What’s worse is we think we’re good at them.”
Words matter, especially in research, but our cognitive biases make thinking outside the box challenging. It’s annoying when we can’t find what we’re looking for on Google or when an important email accidentally gets sent to our spam folder, but the stakes are higher when you’re trying to identify who does—or does not—pose an actual threat to an individual or community.
Fair, along with Harvard professor and director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science Gary King and data scientist Patrick Lam, built Thresher to mitigate the effects of those biases. Using its patent-pending machine learning and natural language processing, Thresher can identify additional keywords (including slang and code words), conduct sentiment analysis, and more—in any language. The result? Major, global benefits and possibilities that impact real people in real ways. It’s been used to identify writings about suicide bombings and domestic violence, and to decipher slang used in online drug and human trafficking communities.
Thresher’s team is incredibly diverse—especially for the tech sector—and is a testament to the power of innovators across generations, professional backgrounds, genders, races, and more. In fact, that’s part of what drove Fair to found Thresher in the first place. “We had a good idea and the right people,” she said.
Just like Shinn, Fair launched Thresher to solve a problem for a sector she knew. Working with the government is notoriously difficult, so much so that many Silicon Valley companies give it a hard pass. But Thresher was built with government needs in mind: It’s certified and supported by multiple government agencies, including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Small Business Administration, and compliant with federal information security requirements—all of which makes it easier for the company and the government to work together.
Fact: Experience can be a blessing or a curse
Understanding sector-specific complexities is part of what helps innovators over 50 succeed at twice the rate of those half their age, according to recent research from Duke University’s Vivek Wadhwa. A whopping 75 percent of those entrepreneurs have more than six years’ experience in their field, while half have more than 10.
That’s definitely true for Matt Beland. He’s been working for over a decade supporting law firms’ IT infrastructure and information security needs. “I know how it works; I’ve been around the block,” he said. “I know how business people work, and lawyers—I can make those connections and utilize them more effectively.”
But the legal sector isn’t exactly known for being innovative. Having experience, said Beland, “can be an advantage and a disadvantage. When you’re doing something innovative in a space where everyone knows how things have always worked, they can be blind to the possibility of change.”
Beland sees the creation of his own information security company, Smooth Sailing Solutions, as a means of effecting change for his clients and his own industry. “I can more effectively promote [change] as a founder and CEO than I could as a chief information security officer,” he said. Beland’s innovation is his business model, which allows clients to engage information security services under the protection of attorney client privilege.
The future is bright for innovators of all ages. There are plenty of problems that need solving, and good ideas can come from anywhere. Anyone can be a change agent. Will you?