Speaking from experience, I know age can matter quite a bit in business but its impact on success can be a double-edged sword. Whether we’re referring to the age of the business, the age of the owners or directors, the age of the products or services, or the age of the targeted market, the following vignettes pose situations with which to judge, from the obvious to the cryptic, from the ridiculous to the sublime.
How age matters can juxtapose experience with naivete; foresight with impulse; poise with passion; and wisdom with luck. A businessperson dulled by the resignation of longevity may be outmaneuvered by the gambles of reckless youth. Yet, a person with nothing more than sheer common sense can catapult from mediocrity and oblivion to fame and fortune. More than a question of chronological years, age can be a state of mind, a platform from which to represent one’s convictions, an ideology with which to guide one’s actions.
My life is a saga of the ramifications of age. I was born to forty-year-old parents which immediately alienated me from my peers, whose parents were from a younger generation. As if raised by grandparents, and an only child to boot, I bore the demeanor of an older person right from the start. “Fun” was not part of my vocabulary. So when I ventured into business at the ripe old age of 23, my serious attitude paved the way for widespread respect and the business thrived as a result.
This is something I owe to my father, a businessman himself, who spent most of his time as a grumpy “old man” in my young eyes except when on the phone with one of his “prospects.” Then, what a mirthful soul he became, only to revert back to his usual mode of gloom when the call ended. In retrospect, I now realize his conundrum, a beleaguered state he battled long before depression had become the household word it is today. From this, however, I learned that above all, customer was king.
Case in point, I have a somewhat unorthodox client whose target market is primarily octogenarians and older. Having first experienced the benefits of my diverse marketing services some eight years ago, this computer-challenged director of an assisted-living facility recently called me to move his website hosting so he could get the benefits of unlimited email. This is because he cannot bring himself to delete any mail he has been sent but has yet to open, finding himself perpetually with a full inbox rejecting new arrivals. To avoid loss of any of this precious material, he also agreed to have me go into his mail account and individually open and forward every piece of mail he has received over this eight-year period to an independent alternate account, although mostly spam. I obediently satisfied his requests without a word of complaint for this grueling task (which he declined to do himself), not to mention also performing a total redesign of his original website, which included new on-site photography I threw in at no charge! My efforts were unrelenting to address everything from the latest comprehensive SEO to online secure job applications to social media metrics. He may not know his way around the Internet but he truly knows whether his business is flourishing, and he knows who is behind the scenes encouraging that phenomenon. I received no email, phone call or note of appreciation for all I did. But when I finally sent him a judiciously prudent invoice for months of this work, his check arrived in one day. That was all the thanks I needed.
Ironically, I also have recently been working with a group of seniors who organized their own non-profit mostly as a self-serving instrument from which they each personally benefit. The concept, known as Aging in Place, is to allow each of them to remain independently living in their own homes with reliance on this service for a variety of purposes. These could include free transportation; periodic social outings; free guidance on health issues; help with simple home maintenance; and other similar needs. While this seems like a worthwhile endeavor, the problem arises when members of the public show interest in joining. Founders restrict their membership area to a very small region based on where they live and are able to easily provide service. Their hours revolve around what is personally convenient for them and marketing decisions are based on what amounts to be the least expensive of choices. It is no surprise that their organization is floundering. Perhaps this is a case of being too close to the forest for the trees, since they have no objectivity or sound judgment on how to successfully run a business. This could also be a result of the inflexibilities of age, where you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
Years ago, I remember arriving at the office a little after 9 a.m. to be greeted by the principal of one of our biggest accounts, an “older” man (of about 40) who owned the county’s only commuter airline, quick to scold us for this unforgivable transgression. Although he had taken it upon himself to pay us an unscheduled visit, he felt we should have been there ready to serve during “normal” business hours. Things were different back then prior to the Internet. There was no email, and cell phones and computer technology didn’t exist. The work we did for him was crudely composed with wax and drafting tables, stat cameras and typesetting machines, rapidograph illustrations and presstype headlines. And our commute from the bucolic outskirts of our residential sprawl involved almost an hour’s drive after micromanaging the logistics of dogwalks, daycare and school bus departures. At twenty-six, our hands were full.
I had to agree with his conservative business ethic, though, and with time, tidied up my act, along with my appearance and availability. We eventually lost that client, who died a short time later. People shook their heads when he left and told us that we were doomed. But it was the guts of our creativity and the grit of our writing that was the glue that held us together, decade after decade. Thirty-six years later, this business is still thriving.
One last peculiar story: a tale of two lawyers. Over a twenty-five-year period, two competitive but friendly clients enjoyed predominance within our region as a result of their consistently impressive case results, deftly communicated to a rapt public through excellent marketing efforts inspired by their separate commitments to our unique brand of quality. Along the way, though, one defected over a billing issue, and hired one of our competitors to continue their marketing. The other lawyer continued with us for another decade through the advent of the Internet while maintaining a close friendship with the defector. Our strengths in advertising, design and online ranking kept our client in the lead as he racked up case after case of million-dollar results. But the strain of the economic climate eventually convinced him to abandon his coveted independence and its ensuing financial chokehold and join ranks with his friend, merging their two firms with the defector as head. Just like that, our relationship ended. And just like that, his Internet presence was snuffed out, leaving the search engines in a state of confusion. Since both of these lawyers are somewhat web-phobic, what they don’t know can’t hurt them, or so they think. A page on the new merged firm website promises that my client’s bio will appear soon, yet I have been waiting over six months for that to happen. Has age squelched my client’s bravado, killed his spirit, paralyzed his pride? How can he allow his “friend” to squander the fruits of his entire career under the guise of procrastination? Can he be so blind? My hunch is that the freedom from the shackles of looming debt as he labors endlessly on contingency for the benefits of others has far outweighed the importance of attracting future work in the autumn of his years. And I don’t blame him one bit.
But he deserves better and I regret fate’s crime of robbing me of the opportunity to protect him from what he does not realize. Age may be responsible for a lot of things like minimizing one’s energy, curtailing one’s enthusiasm, reducing one’s impact, and stealing one’s vision – not to mention making one vulnerable to discrimination from those of a younger persuasion. But for this writer and business owner, age has only magnified a desire to do the best job possible, by preserving stamina with the pursuit of optimal health and fitness; by keeping up with the technology in every respect; and by sharing my knowledge for the benefit of all. Does age matter in business? You bet!