Anti-Advice for the (Mid-Career) Technology Entrepreneur

Paddy Padmanabhan, Founder & CEO, Damo Consulting, IncThe world of work is changing as fast as the world of information technology. Today, more and more people are leaving corporate environments and turning towards entrepreneurship, driven by a variety of factors. Mid-career professionals take the plunge into entrepreneurship for a variety of reasons: a desire to pursue a long-cherished dream, a family situation requiring a relocation or other changes in priorities, an unexpected startup opportunity, a job loss and struggles with finding employment, and disillusionment with the corporate environment.

The last one is particularly interesting. Studies show that as workers get older, they face systemic discrimination for their age by many corporations (Indian firms, in particular, openly ask candidates for their age during interviews, a practice that is illegal in the United States and elsewhere). These very same corporations struggle to attract younger, millennial workers, because that generation has no interest in working for large, bureaucratic organizations.

Large corporations are thus slowly losing the battle for talent because older workers are leaving and younger workers are not signing up adequately to fill the gap. An additional complication is the slow attrition of talent for older technologies required to maintain enterprise IT systems. As an example, a major healthcare company in the U.S recently inventoried their IT skills and realized that the only people with experience in Cobol programming (required to manage legacy mainframe applications) were workers in their seventies. No millennial in his right mind will learn Cobol today, and this creates a severe talent management issue for the company.

The changing dynamics of the corporate workplace are creating an unprecedented opportunity for mid-career entrepreneurs with significant experience to fill gaps that corporations are struggling to address. The meteoric rise of the "gig" economy, and the explosive growth of platforms like Upwork and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, are definite signs of this trend.

The meteoric rise of the "gig" economy, and the explosive growth of platforms like Upwork and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, are definite signs of this trend

Mid-career professionals who turn to entrepreneurship have some advantages, such as an understanding of how large corporations work, awareness of unwritten rules of conduct in business, and an extensive professional network that appreciates the maturity and experience that comes with years of corporate work.

As one such entrepreneur who has been fortunate to sustain and grow my company for several years, I continuously take stock of where I am and try to stay focused on a handful of fundamental principles. I want to share a few of these, and I refer to them as "anti-advice," because they go against the grain of conventional advice that most entrepreneurs receive.

• Choose your clients: Apple's innovative products are costly, and they never, ever go on sale. Their message is clear: they only want customers who care about the product and not about the price, even if that’s a tiny fraction of the world’s population. As the CEO and owner of my business, I am aware that I have to give my clients a compelling reason to hire my company to meet their needs. At the same time, I also have to be selective about who we want to work with because we are specialists in a particular sector and we have limited resources with the expertise and experience in our space. It’s a conscious trade-off between opportunity costs and quality of business. A subtext to this: it takes patience and commitment to earn the opportunity to work with the clients of your choice.

• Learn to walk away: For most entrepreneurs, it hard to say no to work. However, the long-term effects from accepting work that is not a good fit, or doesn't pay enough or is hard to execute because of unreasonably demanding customers can be devastating for an entrepreneur’s mental health as well her bank account. A subtext to this principle: regardless of the profitability of the business, if a client shows a lack of integrity in any form, wind up as quickly as you can and head for the exit. In my company, we have consciously transitioned clients out of our portfolio for one or more of the above reasons.

• Diversify, diversify, diversify: I sound like a mutual fund manager. I know. But customer concentration is an acute problem that impacts businesses of all sizes and makes smaller companies especially vulnerable if a large part of the revenue stream comes from one or two major accounts. Mitigating this problem is easier said than done. Entrepreneurs need to continually prospect for new clients, even when – and especially if – the current clients are paying well and are providing enough business to sustain for the foreseeable future. A subtext to this principle: Be extra sensitive to the risks arising from over-dependence on a single client sponsor. If this individual leaves the company, the next one to come along may decide to end the relationship.

There you have it. As Jack Welch said it, control your destiny or someone else will.