Autor: Kristel Härma • 23. jaanuar 2020

74-year-old founder: the hardest thing was to convince investors

Paul Tasner

Paul Tasner, an American living in Silicon Valley, lost his job when he was 64. Two years later, at the age of 66, he launched his own startup company.

Today he has become a spokesman for older entrepreneurs, and is spreading the message that older people are 70% likely to succeed. "Who wouldn't want to invest in something that has a 70% chance of success?!" he asks.

The reality is something else, however, and it wasn't easy at all for him in Silicon Valley to convince investors that an older person is worth investing in. Tasner, who has been in the industry for 40 years and has seen plastic overproduction at a close range, set up his own startup company, PulpWorks, eight years ago, which produces compostable packaging made from paper and agricultural waste.

What has been the most difficult thing for you as a founder of a startup in such an age?

Age doesn't affect my business now, but it did when we tried to raise funding. Investors just didn't want to invest in a person of my age. But when we changed our business model and decided to use an outsourced production model where we did not have to invest in production capacity, age was no longer a factor.

So what was the real issue: age or business model?

The issue was age. They were very forthright. More than I would have liked. They said that when you are old you have no fresh ideas. When you're old, you could die next year. There are all kinds of justifications. In Silicon Valley, this is a huge issue: people who are 35+ or 40+ feel as if this is the end of their career. That's terrible. I try to show that age is just a mindset and that older entrepreneurs are 70% likely to succeed.

There were other factors as well. I had 40 years of manufacturing experience but no experience as an entrepreneur. Investors like entrepreneurs who have already been successful. I understand this. The third factor was the location. I was in San Francisco and there's not much production, everything here is technology. Investors weren't very familiar with what I was doing and they didn't want to invest in something they didn't understand. After all, it was Silicon Valley. Investors think they'll find the next Facebook or Twitter here and triple their money in six months. We did not have a get-rich-quick business, but one with slow growth.

Why are older people more likely to succeed? Maybe it's because there are fewer who are willing to try?

No, I think it's because you don't want to risk so much since you don't have time to try again and again. You are much more selective in what you do, more calculating. And you bring a lot of experience to the table. You have 40 years of experience. You think about things that 26-year-old people haven’t. You're simply more capable. I don't surround myself with other old people. I work with many young people and when we work together, age disappears.

Don’t you discriminate against others based on age? When meeting young startup businessmen, do you ever think that they don’t know anything about life?

No, not really. But I have a problem with the Forbes' annual ranking of 30 new entrepreneurs who are younger than 30. It really angers me. I don't like the term 30-under-30. It’s like saying people my age that we’ve lost.

What have you learned from young startup managers?

I try to embrace the energy and passion that flows in them. Many of them are, for lack of a better word, extreme, which can sometimes lead to poor management. I have not always succeeded in transferring that energy and passion into my behavior, but I understand its importance.

Do young startup executives ask your advice?

I wouldn't say they ask for advice. They are usually quite confident. It would be quite rare for anyone to ask for advice. They think they already know everything.

Should they seek your advice?

Of course they should! On some specific topics such as production, packaging and supply chain I can give them very good advice. A couple of years before starting my own business, I was consulting and working with startups managed by young people and they were quite eager to seek my advice. They saw me as an expert in the field.

Do you believe that some startups are way overvalued?

Yes. These values are amazing. I keep wondering how they come up with that.

Should there be fewer startups in the near future?

No, I don't think so. The trend is moving in the other direction: there are more entrepreneurs and new companies. Yes, many will fail, but I think this concept is here to stay. In the US, many students skip business school to start a business because they fear that someone else will beat them to it and they don’t want to lose a year or two. The trend is definitely positive towards startups and entrepreneurship. This is great!

How has running a startup changed you?

It has probably given me a more youthful perspective on life and society, because when I meet people or friends who are of my age and more traditional, and are on pension, I don’t feel that we have so much in common. But when I meet younger people - not necessarily younger than 30 - I feel we have more to talk about. I know that I am older, but I don't think of me this way.

Do you see yourself now as a good leader?

Yes, I do. My colleagues have said that too, and they would definitely tell me if it wasn't true. I know my shortcomings, there are some skills I do not have, but my leadership style is pretty good. My strongest feature is sincerity.

Paul Tasner's startup fights for a better future

Paul Tasner launched his startup company eight years ago and is pleased with the decision. “When I wake up every morning it is exciting to look at emails and see who is interested. I have to say that things are getting better. Companies that didn't want to talk to us a few years ago are now suddenly interested."

The company's customers are all consumer goods companies, and from time to time it is frustrating for Tasner that companies are less interested in switching from plastic to sustainable materials. When companies suddenly start thinking more about going green and talk about reducing CO2 emissions, it's mainly because of pressure coming from their customers, he says. “They see customers demanding that they become more sustainable, and they don't want to lose their customers. Consumers have great power, especially when they team up. They can be very powerful, ”he said.

Why is it still important for big companies to be greener and change?

"Plastic pollution is destroying us," Tasner said. “We produce more plastic, not less, every year. The oceans are polluted, the seafood is polluted. We already eat a certain amount of plastic in our daily diet. This has to stop. That is the strongest argument that I know,” he says. Tasner adds that plastic is cheap and easy and people have become lazy and have not made planet Earth their priority.

You need to get rid of the greenwashing

However, there are a few exceptions that make Tasner happy. “One of the best examples of the corporate world is Unilever. As a major multinational company, they have taken the right approach. There are many smaller companies that have the right approach, but they are small and cannot make themselves heard. Major corporations like Coca-Cola and Pepsi make a minimum change and think that they have solved the pollution crisis. This is ridiculous, but the average consumer is not so knowledgeable and thinks that isn't it wonderful that they make Coca-Cola bottles from banana leaves. We call it greenwashing,” he said. According to him, large corporations engage a lot in greenwashing. “Many corporations are listed companies, they have shareholders and they publish their results every three months. The most important part is the business result. Another good word for it is greed,” he noted.

According to him, the best way to stop greenwashing is to make large companies like Unilever an example. “Everything could go quickly from there. Companies do not usually want to take risks. They don't want to be the first because it is scary. They want someone else to be the first so that they know that it is safe and secure. The expression here is that they all want to be the first to be the second. They will follow others,” he said with hope.

Unhappy with Trump's policies

The European Commission wants all EU Member States to be carbon neutral by 2050. Some countries are even talking about 2030. Tasner admitted that he did not know enough about the subject, but thinks that it was great that the European Union had set such a goal. “Unfortunately, we no longer have such national goals in the US because we have a complete idiot in the president’s job. But we have local goals and state goals. And also the European Union is not all united behind this goal,” he said.

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