Founders over 50 are building better companies.
An interview with Mary Cronin about the similarities between thought leadership and entrepreneurship.
What is the relationship between thought leadership and entrepreneurship?
Both are forward-thinking problem solvers who know that passion and vision can take you far!
To dig deeper into the ways these two paths intersect, we sit down with Mary Cronin, a research professor at Boston College. She’s also the Founder and President of 4Q Catalyst LLC, a business advisory firm that provides strategy consulting, market analysis, and leadership development services.
We start our conversation by discussing the similarities between thought leadership and entrepreneurship. In addition to passion and vision, both roles require a fine understanding of storytelling; a key component to success. Mary describes the impact of storytelling, and why it’s often an overlooked function for start-ups as they focus on bootstrapping their business to achieve success.
In May of 2021, Mary published Starting Up Smarter: Why Founders Over 50 Build Better Companies, which provides a keen look at entrepreneurs starting companies, and how their success rates were often impacted by the founder’s age and experience. The book’s research investigates 7 million US start-up companies over the last decade, and provides a keen look into the how’s and why’s of their success. Mary explains the research showing that most successful founders are in their 50s, which is also the age of many established and successful thought leaders.
We further explore the traits of successful founders, and how they cross-over into successful thought leadership. Mary tells us that starting a business in your 50s means having a great sense of purpose, a willingness to partner with the younger generation, and the persistence to keep pushing forward and rethinking problems in order to achieve success.
While the most successful founders are in their 50s this conversation will give you great advice to find success as a thought leader or entrepreneur at any age.
Three Key Takeaways:
- Good storytelling is a useful tool to ensure clients, employees, and investors fully understand your vision – whether you’re building a company or creating thought leadership.
- Partnering with team members or co-founders of different generations will give your work a broader reach and greater perspective.
- Having an overwhelming passion for your mission, whether thought leadership or business, will go a long way to overcoming difficult challenges in your path.
Join the Organizational Thought Leadership Newsletter to learn more about expanding thought leadership within your organization! This monthly newsletter is full of practical information, advice, and ideas to help you reach your organization’s thought leadership goals.
Bill Sherman What can we learn about thought leadership through the study of entrepreneurship? Well, both fields begin with the belief that you have a better idea, you’ve innovated a better mousetrap, and now you need to take that idea to scale. Most successful entrepreneurs and thought leadership practitioners. Well, they aren’t 20 somethings fresh out of college. They’re often older adults in the second or third act of their career. So, I reached out to Dr. Mary Cronin. She’s a research professor at Boston College who specializes in the study of entrepreneurship. And she’s the author of Starting Up Smarter. Why Entrepreneurs over 50 Build Better Companies. In today’s conversation, we’ll talk about the attributes that make a successful entrepreneur and how to extrapolate those qualities the thought, leadership, and entrepreneurship.
Bill Sherman I’m Bill Sherman. And you’re listening to Leveraging Thought Leadership. Ready? Let’s begin.
Bill Sherman So, Mary, one of the things that you and I have talked about and I’m eager to explore more in this conversation, is the relationships between thought, leadership and entrepreneurship and how are they similar? How are they different? In an earlier conversation, we landed on sort of the working hypothesis that thought leadership and entrepreneurship are first cousins. Let me hand that to you to explain sort of the connections that you see between the two. And then I’ll jump in.
Dr. Mary Cronin Thank you, Bill. And yes, I like that characterization of the relationship between entrepreneurs and thought leaders. They are closely related. And here are a few ways I see that in practice. In my experience, entrepreneurs are intrinsically the people who are thinking about the future and have a perspective of changing something. When they launch a company or a new venture, they have seen a problem, they have found a need, and now they are looking to address this need in a startup and therefore they’re thinking about the future they’re seeing around the corners a phrase I know you like to use, and that is very similar to what thought leaders are skilled at doing. Thought leaders can look at trends today and also begin to think about what does this mean for where the future is going to lead us? I would say that where that relationship is worth exploring more deeply is I see an intrinsic advantage for entrepreneurs. They don’t just envision the future. They also typically are building the future, and that is deeper and more impactful. And that is something I’d love to explore more with you in this conversation.
Bill Sherman So I think there’s a couple of things there. First, that. Many entrepreneurs are visionary, but you don’t have to be a visionary to be an entrepreneur. Right. But that sense of building the future, of making something new or serving a need that hasn’t been served before requires storytelling. Especially if you’re doing something like creating a new market and you’re doing category creation, where you have to convince people this is not only a problem, but it’s a solvable problem.
Dr. Mary Cronin Yes. And right away, you are posing some questions that I think we want to debate a bit, because I agree with you that it is not necessary to be a visionary, to be an entrepreneur. And I also agree that it is essential for any successful company at any stage to be able to articulate their story in a compelling way. So storytelling is a component of entrepreneurship, success, and I believe also of thought leadership success. What I think is different in my perspective is that the bias towards change, towards action, towards actually being the person that makes the change happen is so much stronger in the entrepreneurial mindset and in the thought leader mindset. It’s articulating the change so that whether or not that change that a company wants to bring into being is completely solving a problem that no one else has tackled yet and making the world a better place as a result, or simply changing customer behavior. So they buy a product from this startup or this company and not another company. Those kinds of changes that take place in the market and in society and everything in between, they have to be high on the list for entrepreneurs to master to start a company that survives and thrives in this highly competitive business world. And to get back to your storytelling point, storytelling maybe is at the heart of thought leadership, but is only one component and often a neglected component of entrepreneurship. And that has raised in my mind just I thought about our conversation a paradox why isn’t every entrepreneur. In essence, a nascent or an accomplished thought leader. If entrepreneurs are out to change the world, if they’re out to solve a problem, if they want to accomplish something through action, it is in their interests, I believe, to be able to articulate why they are doing it in a way that can be understood by the broader market, by their customers, by their employees, or the talent that they want to attract by their potential investors and partners. And yet I see a lot of entrepreneurs who don’t even put that leadership on their priority list. When they’re learning art.
Bill Sherman That’s an interesting thing, because one of the things from my side that I’ve seen is I’ve seen start ups that have been going on a fundraising tour, basically using thought leadership as one of the designated uses of capital for the thought of, for the fundraising. Right? So that they are going to position themselves in the market to create demand or distinguish and tell their story. And so I think from a very savvy perspective, it’s a way to grow and get attention rather than say, okay, we’re going to talk to industry analysts, we’re going to talk to do some traditional PR, etc.. That only goes so far. Right. How are you going to change the conversation from the way that the world is working? And if you can show investors that you’ve got a plan for that, that’s useful.
Dr. Mary Cronin I agree with you. And I would also remind you that we started this conversation saying that entrepreneurs don’t have to be visionaries and that not all entrepreneurs are, in fact, visionaries. The parallel to that is most entrepreneurs are not out on fundraising tours, right? Booking analyst conversations. They are busy trying to bootstrap their companies and to achieve their vision that way. And those are the entrepreneurs I think I am mostly thinking about. Of course, I’m interested in those who can make a big launch with a nice fundraise. But in terms of the number of entrepreneurs who are entering the marketplace every year, the vast majority are not raising that kind of investment. And yet I feel strongly they would still benefit from and be very well served by thinking about how to create a thought leadership position for themselves in their companies.
Bill Sherman Well, I think it’s worthwhile taking a moment to talk about who are the entrepreneurs. I know you’ve looked at that in terms of who are entrepreneurs who become successful, what our success rates. And I want to dove into that in a moment. But I think there’s also and I’ll teased this and we’ll come back to it a parallel and thought leadership. So, let’s talk about your work in terms of studying entrepreneurs and who’s successful. So, let’s put on the table where your focus is.
Dr. Mary Cronin Good. So, as you know, Bill, I have a new book Starting Up Smarter Why Founders over 50 Build Better Companies. And for that work, I did a lot of research on who starts companies in particular in the U.S. and how successful they are or are not at different ages when they launch a company. And there are hundreds of thousands of new businesses launched in the U.S. every year, most of them are small businesses. Hence my point about they’re not venture funded. They’re often bootstrapped or funded with friends and family resources. Interestingly, and contrary to a long-lasting perception in media and in the public mind, if someone starts a company when they’re in their twenties, they are highly unlikely for that company to be a long term success. Statistically, a long-term success is defined as you’re still in business in five years after your founding date. And a large scale, very data intensive study that looked at over 7 million startup companies in the past decade, and that was based on the registration of companies in getting an employee identification number indicating you were going to hire people in your company. The most successful median age was 46. For entrepreneurs to start a company least successful was in their twenties. Especially young twenties. So the heroic college dropout who starts $1,000,000,000 success story like Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, that is actually very rare. The 50 something founder who may be starting their second or third company or maybe a first time founder is 4 to 10 times more likely for their company to succeed in in the face of there being a pretty high failure rate across the board for new businesses, entrepreneurship is by definition, risky.
Bill Sherman And where I want to make that connection, going back to the first cousins is there are a number of people who come to thought leadership, a second or third career, and there are many people who are in their mid to late forties and above that I’ve seen. Whether through purpose or unintentional wind up stumbling into something or shit, right? It wasn’t a career path or plan, but they realized either by writing or by speaking. All of a sudden doors are opening for them and they say, okay, I can practice thought leadership either on behalf of my organization that I’m already with, which could be a large organization. It could be a boutique or smaller organization that they lead. But there’s an aha that happens and it’s not. Always that it waits till your forties. But I would say the majority of people who practice thought leadership are forties and above, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to have this conversation with you, because there’s a pattern there and I think some of it’s life experience. But I think it’s just more than life experience. So let me hand this back to you and jump in with what’s.
Dr. Mary Cronin Yes. And you have now touched on my aha moment in researching and writing, Starting Up Smarter and founders over 50 building better companies. I think they’re maybe their siblings thought leaders and founders over 50 even closer than first cousins, because to me, it comes down to your purpose. And your passion about that purpose and your insight into how to make a change for the good, either through a new company or through writing a book or through expressing an analysis that you passionately believe is important for other people to hear and understand and give consideration to. And I believe there is a very strong relationship between the depth of experience that you have. The time that you have spent. Trying things. Experimenting. Looking for solutions. And importantly, failing to achieve everything you attempt. That it is when you have been through that seasoning and that experience. That you develop a depth of perspective that points you towards insights that are in fact worthy to be called thought leadership and also points you towards solutions that are entrepreneurial and that have a better chance of succeeding over the long term. If you do launch a company because they are based on a mission that you are committed to. And one of the major reasons, by the way, for startup failure is founder abandonment, it’s called. So the founder gives up. It’s hard. The challenges are constant and sometimes overwhelming. And every successful founder I talked to for Starting Up Smarter said this If I didn’t really believe in the purpose of this company, if I didn’t really feel compelled to continue to work to achieve this solution, I would give up because it is so hard on a daily basis. It’s just hard.
Bill Sherman So and I want to sort of underscore the closeness of the relationship here. So if you were to take what you just said about founder abandonment and replace entrepreneur with thought leadership practitioners, so whether they’re inside an organization or they’re doing it on their own as a solopreneur. It is hard because coming up with the idea for thought leadership, the AHA is table stakes. Your challenge is how do you get this world out of this idea, out into the world? And if your goal is just to write a book. Yeah, go write a manuscript. Leave it on your hard drive. Congratulations. You wrote a book. You want to change the world? You need to be plugged in with purpose. Because you’re going to be talking about that idea again and again to people who it may not be the top thing on their mind. And you have to get their attention and get them to see this is important and to lean in. And that’s very akin to that sort of. Rugged determination that an entrepreneur needs, you know, because you’re going to fail a lot of things and you’re going to have to be scrappy as an entrepreneur. How do I get this idea in front of the right people and you’ll try seven, eight, ten times and it’ll fail. The myth of the overnight success and thought leadership is probably as common as entrepreneurship. It doesn’t happen overnight.
Dr. Mary Cronin And when it does, it may not last.
Bill Sherman Right. Right. It’s sizzle rather than steak.
Dr. Mary Cronin And I agree with you there 100%. And again, I would just underscore what I’ve learned. And I’ve worked with entrepreneurs who are all ages. I work with undergraduates at Boston College, of course, and some of them, to my sorrow, do drop out to devote their time to their first startup. And statistically and in reality, in the very individual stories, I know, most of them do not succeed. And some of them are spectacular success stories and go on to be serial entrepreneurs. But I have found in my research, as well as in the case studies that I put in starting up smarter, the older founders are the ones who will stick to it and who have that determination. In part, they know their clock is ticking. And one of the one of the companies of the founder, Bill Barron, said in our first discussion, I hear the clock ticking and it’s ticking louder for me every day when now that I’m in my sixties, even though he had started other companies earlier in his life, this was the one he felt was going to be his legacy. And he has built it into a $100 million plus solar energy business. So revision energy. So that is the success story. It is also a story where they did that. He and his co-founders did not raise any money. They tried. They got 100 no’s and they decided to take the risk of putting their own money into the company and bootstrapping it into profitability. So that’s a very common story for older founders, and it is paired with their purpose that they’re willing to take the risk and they hear the clock ticking. This is their legacy and they want to see it come to fruition.
Bill Sherman If you are enjoying this episode of Leveraging Thought Leadership, please make sure to subscribe. If you’d like to help spread the word about the podcast, please leave a five star review and share it with your friends. We are available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and all major platforms as well as at LeveragingThoughtLeadership.com.
Bill Sherman So what other attributes did you find in your research that made someone who is an entrepreneur over 50 be successful? What was what were the commonalities?
Dr. Mary Cronin Well, again, the first commonality that is almost universal for founders over 50 is a sense of purpose. The second is a sense that they do have a mission that they want to achieve in their own sake, but also they are looking and willing to partner with younger co-founders and team members. So there’s a lot of intergenerational openness, and I think this goes in parallel with thought leadership that if you want to be a thought leader, you have to be able to speak in a language that reaches a broader audience than just your individual image of the change that you want to make or the issue that you want to address. You have to be able to put it into a story, into a context that is broader, and that is the characteristic I have found in older founders. They understand that is, as another founder in the book said, Well, of course, I’m hiring younger team members. I could hardly be just hiring older team members. It’s inevitable when you’re an older founder that you are in open to intergenerational teams and perspectives, because otherwise it’s too narrow and it’s self-evident that you can’t change the world if you’re only speaking to one very selective audience. That and finally, persistence. The ability to hear the No. And go on and either keep asking or interestingly to me a big characteristic is rethink it. Pivot. Being ready to pivot earlier and more thoroughly than I think is characteristic of sometimes younger founders.
Bill Sherman So one of the things that I’ve seen and thought leadership practitioners over 50 is they are better at in general reading the board relationships, seeing the potential connections and opportunities, and seeing multiple ways to an outcome. They’re also good at what I would describe as finding the collaboration curious the people who would be willing to invest time, energy, effort on this project because it aligns with purpose, and they draw those people in and thought leadership. Are those things that resonate with your work and looking at entrepreneurs?
Dr. Mary Cronin Absolutely. For any age entrepreneur, they have to be able to draw people in. They have to be able to attract talent to their team. And today, we know that that is a massive challenge to be able to find the purpose driven colleagues who are the collaboration. Curious. I like that phrase to who are joining this organization because they share the mission. They believe in the mission. So that’s why starting with purpose is so important as a characteristic for successful entrepreneurs and bringing in the talent. And sharing the ownership in a thoughtful way. The mental ownership, if you will, as well as sharing equity and the value that is generated. And that means being profoundly open to listening to new ideas and considering all the ideas on the table and all the different perspectives and again, crystallizing it. So here is where entrepreneurship and thought leaders come together again. You hear all the perspectives. You’re open to hearing different and maybe surprising points of view. But you also have a skill and an ability to crystallize the commonality and move it forward.
Bill Sherman And this, I think, is an interesting place where there’s an intersection. I’ve been thinking about this. I’ve been thinking about the distinction between not for profits, which tend to understand purpose very, very well, and our mission driven and good at articulating that your for profits tend to understand how to run a business, how to keep a lean ship, you know, how to do all the things for marketing and sales. But I think there’s an interesting sort of continuum with social entrepreneurship, right, where you have a combination of both the desire to change the world and understanding the tools to create the impact of that. And so whether it’s entrepreneurship, interpersonal ship thought, leadership, it’s how do you make a difference in the world today? A greater tomorrow and even greater after that.
Dr. Mary Cronin And I would say. Every entrepreneur who wants to have a success story with a lasting company that survives has got to today be a social entrepreneur. It is not optional to think about the place that your company and your product is going to have in the broader social context. And if you cannot articulate what that reason for starting the business is, that will resonate with the market and with employees and with investors. If that’s what you need to be successful, then you are just a nonstarter, literally. Or you’re a non survivor, you’re not going to have an impact in a decade. The the table stakes have changed for entrepreneurs, in my opinion. I believe that having a positive impact in whatever industry sector you want to enter is part of your license to do business in society today. And that’s been articulated at so many levels that it shouldn’t really be a surprise. But I think taking it seriously and making it a core of your strategy as an entrepreneur is still a great challenge. Because you’re right, there’s so much to tend to in the managing of the business operations, funding, finances and logistics that that is where thought leadership really comes to the fore. The founder, the entrepreneur is responsible for that. Ideally, articulating the why of the company in a way that employees and team members can also be articulate in their spheres about the why, and eventually customers can become champions of the company. And that is what really creates the strong foundation for that company to have an impact and also be a business success. I don’t think it’s optional anymore.
Bill Sherman So I would agree with you, Mary, on that, because we’ve seen over the past few years a pure motivation that is solely profit driven and doesn’t resonate with a customer in the same way by this, because we want to sell you this. That’s not a compelling pitch on the sales side. You’ve got to fulfill a need which is more than just, hey, I need soap. Right. So, as we begin to wrap up, Mary, I want to ask you a question. You’ve done a lot of research. You’ve worked with a lot of entrepreneurs. I’ve worked with a fair number of thought leaders over the years. My question would be this. What advice would you give someone who is at that? 50 ish age or just about. And they’re looking to make that leap into the world of entrepreneurship or thought leadership. What recommendations which you make based on what you’ve learned.
Dr. Mary Cronin I would say first start with that passion, that desire to make a change. Go deep into your own life experience and think about what you must accomplish and how you can bring that into being. From the entrepreneurial perspective, in an organization or inside an existing company, as an entrepreneur, which is a very important path that I’m glad you brought up, Bill, as well as a thought leader. Is it writing? Is it appearing in interviews? Is it using social media, which is out there as a tool for everyone to use? I would say first think about why you feel the need to do this and then develop your story in a way that makes it absolutely clear what is the value. Of what you’re trying to accomplish, what the message is that you want to get across, or what the product is that you want to put into the marketplace. And then. Use that message and that purpose to attract the most talented, compatible and motivated people you can. To build a great team to support you and to be part of this effort. And that is also where thought leadership is so valuable. It’s part of getting that message out. And people will come to you. They will be attracted to the value of what you are trying to do. If. It’s inside you and you are convinced of it, and you take the time and trouble to get it out into the world in a way that makes sense to other people. So do all those things. And then I would have to say either take a course in entrepreneurship like the one I’m teaching at Boston College, or read all of the many great resources that are available to you for free in how to build a business if that is the path you want to follow. There is a lot to learn. It is not intuitive to create a financial plan or a profit and loss statement or a marketing strategy campaign. So, there’s a lot to learn. There’s a lot of resources out there. Don’t feel you have to know it all to get started. But don’t get started without having a plan to learn what you need to know.
Bill Sherman I think that’s great advice, Mary. Thank you very much for joining us today for a conversation around entrepreneurship and thought leadership.
Dr. Mary Cronin Thank you.
Bill Sherman If you’re interested in organizational thought leadership, then I invite you to subscribe to the OrgTL newsletter. Each month we talk about the people who create, curate, and deploy thought leadership on behalf of their organizations. Go to the website. OrgTL.com and choose. Join our newsletter. I’ll leave a link to the website as well as my LinkedIn profile in the show notes. Thanks for listening and I look forward to hearing what you thought of the show.