I'm desperate to get involved in e-commerce and the new economy, but at the age of 45 I feel I may have already missed the boat. I'm financially secure enough to get involved in a new venture, but I'd like to know if there's a market for people my age and also what skills are needed.
It's a good sign that you are still interested in moving across at this stage in the e-commerce game, when it has become clear that involvement in a dot.com is not a guaranteed passport to instant wealth. To flourish in transition, it is important that your interest in the sector is not just financial. And the good news is that there is indeed a need in e-commerce for those with strong management skills and experience in guiding businesses over the medium and longer term. As Martha Lane Fox candidly confessed last summer: 'We've done all right so far, but it is going to take older and wiser heads than ours to take this company on to successful maturity.'
How to go about finding the right niche? One option would be to explore on-line possibilities in your own traditional company; for example, in e-procurement or direct distribution. This at least would give you a feel for the kinds of issues likely to crop up and would provide a crash course in the terminology.
Alternatively, if you are a director of an established business, you could put a toe in the water as a non-executive director of a start-up.
Nowadays, venture capitalists are keen to appoint board members to provide a bridge between the young entrepreneurs who spawned the venture and the older, straighter investors.
Consultancy is another avenue, on your own or with an established company.
Kevin Gavaghan, who at your age was the main mover in the launch of First Direct while marketing director of the former Midland Bank, has now developed a successful business as a matchmaker for bricks-and-clicks companies.
His knowledge of how old-economy companies operate makes his consultancy, Choreographics, adept at guiding new businesses towards the resources they need to deliver their ideas and plans. Having encountered many e-commerce businesses, he comments: 'What is most desperately needed is a solid base of experience allied to open-mindedness, enthusiasm for new ways and a strong bias towards hard teamwork.'
Have you got what it takes to survive and thrive in the pressured environment of a start-up? In my experience, flexibility, resourcefulness and patience are certainly some of the qualities that characterise those who have made a successful transplant. Here are a few more: a tolerance of the lack of resources and infrastructure from which most dot.coms suffer; a readiness to wear your knowledge lightly (though it may be sound, its currency will not necessarily be perceived as valuable); a sense of humour.
One way to work out if the new venture will suit you is to do some personal archaeology on your work experience to date. Try drawing a graph of your job satisfaction over time: what were the peaks? What did you find most satisfying and why? Were you happiest when you started a new job with a lot to learn, or did you prefer it when you'd been in a job a while and knew the ropes? If the latter, you may find the constant change and uncertainty not to your liking. Does your graph indicate that you prefer a high degree of autonomy or are you happiest working as a team member?
The most successful e-commerce managements are fully concerted efforts - the sort of dislocation you may find between departments in more traditional organisations spells disaster in this faster-moving, essentially integrated world.
In making yourself an attractive prospect, you should also consider your appearance. You may need to make some changes as an outward reflection of the mental adjustment you are prepared to make. Recently, one of my clients symbolically cut his hair, losing the wispy mop that had previously distinguished him from his more conventional colleagues, but in the new context made him too evidently an old hippy.
In the wake of the recent e-commerce roller-coaster, some words of caution: choose your e-venture carefully. The idea must be good and have sufficient relevant differentiation to distance it from its competitors. And, obvious as it may sound, the business must be based on a model capable of generating profit. A surprising number of the e-commerce companies I've seen have had precious little commercial nous among their senior people, and their enthusiastic business plans have lacked any substantive way of converting consumer interest into hard cash.
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