Why Content Favors the Old (Entrepreneur)

By Sarah Lacy , written on February 26, 2012

From The News Desk

Starting PandoDaily has been one of the most terrifying and exhilarating things I've ever done.

To say it's "hard" is an understatement. I never come close to doing everything I need to do on a daily basis. I've never spent so much of my day feeling like a failure no matter how hard I work. But I was prepared for that part.

What I wasn't prepared for is how fun it would be. And the satisfaction of not only paying my own salary-- which I've done for years on various book projects-- but paying the salaries of others. Creating jobs in an industry as screwed up as journalism feels awesome, and every kind Tweet or comment from a reader has an emotional kick of adrenaline that I never felt when I was just a reporter.

It's been so amazing that I've wondered several times why it took me so long to start something. And then I realize: If I'd started this any earlier, I would have failed miserably.

I just wouldn't have been ready. Not to speak for anyone else, but I needed the ten years in traditional journalism to learn how to write, report and to build a solid base of expertise and sources. I needed the terrifying experience of jumping off a cliff and relying only on my wits to complete the two books I've written. Compared to traveling around the emerging world for forty weeks-- narrowly avoiding machetes, baboons and kidnappings-- even starting a company isn't that scary.

Most important: I needed the time I spent at TechCrunch to learn what was powerful about new media. It's hard for someone who has only worked in old media to get it. Likewise, I needed to distill what elements of old media weren't broken and should be worked back into the blogosphere. (Spoiler alert: We have a copy editor starting next week!)

And getting to know entrepreneurs for fifteen years-- seeing what worked or didn't for them-- has certainly been helpful too.

It's funny: Many people argue young entrepreneurs are so effective because they can blow up industries. They have no investment in the status quo. They don't understand enough about the way things are done or how hard disrupting it will be and so they're willing to take risks more experienced entrepreneurs never would.

You can't argue with results: Many of the most disruptive multi-billion companies are started by the young. Of course there are studies that show that on average more older entrepreneurs win. But the younger entrepreneurs are the ones that seem to win big. And the startup ecosystem is dependent on those wild Barry-Bonds-juiced-up-on-a-million-steriods-style home runs to keep functioning.

But it's possible that as the secret sauce of new media swings farther from disruptive technology and business models to a focus on curated and quality content, it's the older entrepreneurs who are in the pole position.

It's a totally self-serving argument to make, but there's no doubt my grey hairs have been an advantage. Maybe we'll still fail, but trust me-- we would have failed faster if a 22-year-old me was starting this. More to the point, we wouldn't have gotten started. We wouldn't have raised money, I wouldn't have sources to return my calls and no one in his or her right mind would have accepted a job working for me. PandoDaily just would have been a non-starter.

In many cases, content simply takes experience to do well. Consider As I've argued before, the site is less about commerce, and more about content. It's essentially the commercialization of the amalgamated aesthetic of Bradford Shellhammer. The early images on Fab's landing page were simply pictures of his New York apartment.

That aesthetic took decades to develop. More to the point, the relationships with vendors, know-how of product hunting and credibility in the design world took decades to develop.

Co-founder and CEO Jason Goldberg said this was the first of several companies he's started that was so intensely personal, he couldn't imagine ever doing anything else. "It's a weird feeling as a serial entrepreneur when you realize you shouldn't be serial anymore," he said in an interview in San Francisco a few weeks ago. "This one is just so much fun."

It's fun because it draws on who these guys are, on their entire life experience and because no one else could run Fab the way they do. That's the beauty of a great content business. Fab's differentiator is taste and you don't develop taste overnight, the two argue.  "We've been successful, because we're not kids," Shellhammer said. "Kids wouldn't have had the connections to sell prints from Milton Glaser on day one."

Ditto a new company about to launch called TastemakerX. It's started by Marc Ruxin, a former A&R man for EMI Records who has been on a million advisory boards in the Valley and had several jobs in and around pop culture. (Our executive chairman Andrew Anker is an investor in TastemakerX as well.)

I'm going to have a much longer post on TastemakerX when it launches, but it's also a company that relies on an underpinning of curation and taste. The conversation we had about why Ruxin decided to start it reminded me -- almost verbatim-- of that conversation I had with Shellhammer and Goldberg weeks earlier, not to mention my own thought-process in starting PandoDaily. Ultimately, we each had a lot of domain experience in different content verticals and wanted to build the ultimate places we could work every day putting that experience to work.

TastemakerX was the company Ruxin was born to build-- that every hobby, obsession and savvy career move has unknowingly conspired to positioned him to create. "It's hard to create a company like this as a kid," he says. "It's about passions, and I didn't have fully developed passions yet at 21."

Of course, there's a clear benefit the young have over me, Shellhammer, Goldberg or Ruxin: Time and energy. I simply can't work as many hours as I could ten years ago. When there's an emergency I can pull an all-nighter, but the most I can sustainably work is about seventy hours a week. I usually start my day around 6:30 am and by the time I put my five-month-old, Eli, to bed at 10 pm, I'm lucky to have another hour of work in me before I pass-out.

I was asking Ruxin his tips on this. I ask every entrepreneur with kids their tips on this. But there's no good answer. You just have to squeeze productivity out of a rock, getting work done in every spare moment you can. Sometimes that means taking a baby with me to fundraising meetings, and sometimes it means bouncing Eli up and down on the floor while I browbeat a source on the phone to get a scoop. I'm finding the only way to have any meaningful work-life balance as a new mom and an entrepreneur is to have no clear line between the two.

But there's an upside to that catch-22 as well: To start a company with young kids you have to really want to start that company. There has to be nothing else in the world you can do and possibly be happy. No new parent is starting a company just for the life experience of starting a company. While a 21-year-old with no mortgage, no girlfriend and a low-burn rate may have nothing to lose, a 40-year old with a career, a mortgage and kids has everything to lose. So if he starts a company, make no mistake: It's not something he's emotionally detached enough to flip in a few years. That company may not become the next Facebook, but it's not going to fail either.

It's similar to that logic of why great companies are started in recessions. It guarantees that only the most obsessed entrepreneurs whose companies are closer to a calling will go for it.

(Image of magically jumping old people courtesy of Shutterstock.)