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Innovation Economy

Exploring the age divide in Boston start-ups

Age is a matter not often discussed in Boston start-up circles. Fast-growing companies like to think of themselves as meritocracies. Company founders talk about filling every position with the most talented people available — as long as they believe in the mission, will work crazy hours, and can cope with strategies and job descriptions that might shift by the week.

But when I visit start-up companies around Boston and Cambridge, it’s hard to ignore that many are populated entirely by twentysomethings — and a few “seasoned” folks in their early 30s. There are Xbox game systems hooked up to flat-screen TVs, kegerators full of beer, and Nerf gun arsenals.

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So are start-ups the domain of the young? Without dropping the bombs of “bias” or “discrimination,” I’ve been talking to people about how older workers are perceived by the local start-up scene. Here are some of the dynamics at play.

The suburbs are grayer than the city. When I visit start-ups in the suburbs, the median age can seem 10 years older than in the city. “I definitely feel that,” says Melissa Leffler, 48, who recently became vice president of engineering at a Boston software start-up, Objective Logistics, after working in Burlington. She says she’s the oldest employee “by at least eight years.” Middle-age workers buy homes in the ’burbs and often opt to work there, too.

Time commitments. One mobile software entrepreneur told me that at his Cambridge company, the expectation was that everyone would be willing to “work intensely seven days a week,” and that he’d found that older candidates sometimes seemed reluctant to sign up for that. “There’s always a lot of work to do, and just a few people to do it,” says Paul Lamere, 53, an executive at The Echo Nest, a music technology start-up in Somerville.

Concern about skills atrophying. The burden of proof is on older candidates in showing that they’re keeping up with the latest tools and technologies. “Saying that you’re willing to learn a new software language is an uninteresting comment to me,” says Hugh Scandrett, 55. “Why haven’t you learned it already?” Scandrett is vice president of engineering at EnerNOC, a Boston energy management firm trying to hire scads of software developers this year.

The blank sheet phenomenon. Workers in their 20s are seen as more malleable and trainable than people who have spent decades working in a particular role. That flexibility is especially desirable when a start-up is working with new technologies or business models, such as a game that relies on selling “virtual goods” for its revenue. “The further you’re along in your career, the less people think you can be flexible,” says Frederick Jones, 55, a founder of several Massachusetts biotech companies. “You’re not a blank sheet anymore.”

Salary expectations. Swirl Networks founder Hilmi Ozguc says that “salary expectations can get out of whack” with older candidates applying at start-ups. Swirl might offer $100,000 for an engineer with experience building mobile apps, which sounds appealing to twenty- and thirtysomethings. “But that can seem like a low number when you’re 50,” says Ozguc, who leads a management team of people mostly in their 40s.

Birds of a feather flock together. Quite simply, recent college grads tend to hire other recent college grads. Older entrepreneurs tend to hire people they’ve worked with before.

The big company stigma. “We just hired a couple guys out of Raytheon,” says Caesar Naples, 45, vice president of engineering at GSN Digital in Waltham, which builds games for the Web and mobile devices. “But if you’ve spent 15 years there, I think there can be a stigma, that you’ve worked in a very process-oriented, bureaucratic place for a long time.”

Not hiring an older candidate rarely produces a lawsuit. Even when companies pass up an older candidate, says Boston attorney Mark Burak, it doesn’t usually produce an age discrimination case. Employers usually know better than to say overtly discriminatory things like, “We’re looking for someone really young and energetic for this role.”

Certain sectors favor older entrepreneurs and employees. In sectors like life sciences, “It takes so much education and experience to get to the point where you even understand how to go about developing a drug,” says serial entrepreneur Mark Tepper, 55. That can favor older employees.

At start-ups that sell technology to corporate buyers, sales roles often go to employees with a few wrinkles. “New technologies can be scary for people, let alone when they’re being sold it by someone who is 25 years old,” says Adine ­Deford of Burlington-based ­AppZero.

Why haven’t you retired to a private island yet? One founder of a Boston software start-up, speaking anonymously, told me that in a world where one of the objectives is to get rich by working for a company that either goes public or gets acquired, there were always unspoken questions around people in their 50s or 60s interviewing for a job. Namely, if you’re such a power player, why haven’t you already hit the jackpot and retired?

Ten years ago, if there was a bias evident in the Boston start-up scene, it tilted toward companies run by experienced (read: older) management teams. If there wasn’t one in place, the venture capitalists who poured in the money often recruited a few graybeards for key roles. But in the post-Zuckerberg era, the pendulum may be swinging the other way — not too far, in my judgment — with investors more comfortable backing purely postcollegiate teams.

Many start-ups are trying to strike the right balance. “I think the founders here really saw the value that someone with more experience can bring,” says Leffler at Objective Logistics.

She initiated a semiregular game night on Thursdays after work. Some employees gravitated to the Xbox to play Assassin’s Creed, but Leffler brought some board games. “I think at 48 I’m one of those tweeners,” she says. “Not as young as the rest of the team here, but not too old to fit in.”

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.
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