As I was walking through the CES show earlier this month, I happened across a panel discussion entitled “Learn from Profitable and Fund-able Hardware Startups” that was sponsored by Techstars. I have recently started my own consulting business after 20 years in mid-sized corporations developing and marketing consumer durable goods, and I have decided to focus on helping consumer durable goods startups with product development and go-to-market strategy planning. I wanted to learn more about the challenges that startups are faced with, how they talk about them, and how I might be able to add value and help them achieve their goals. The panel of experts gave some very sound advice to those in attendance, and clearly, the panelists had “walked the walk” and were speaking from experience. Overall a very worthwhile discussion.
At some point during the presentation, one of the panelists was talking about the unique challenges hardware development brings to the startup community, and that a young entrepreneur might not always be well equipped to navigate through them. While an entrepreneur might be incredibly effective in inspiring others to their vision, raising capital, wearing many hats, etc., the rock star visionary might not possess the know how they need to launch a physical product; requiring engineering, product design, contract manufacturing, consumer insights to drive product requirements, and the like. They might have clarity around their vision, but struggle in bringing it to life and into production. He suggested reaching out to some “Graybeards” that have more industry experience and to help them navigate the tricky waters.
“Greybeards”??? That description hit me right between the eyes, not just because what he was saying rang true, but also, I realized in that moment that he was referring to someone like me. And while I might have some grey hair, I certainly don’t have a beard. Did I really want to be described like this in a world of such youthful energy and confidence? I started to wonder if the term was being used in a derogatory manner towards folks like myself, or with reverence and gratitude.
So, I did the only thing I could do, I turned to the Internet for an explanation of what this was all about. A Google search quickly uncovered a few references. There was a science fiction novel in 1964 entitled Greybeard, but this seemed to be completely unrelated. The Greybeards are also an Elder Scrolls video game character described as “an ancient and honored order that dwell in a mountain sanctuary…they live in absolute silence in order to better attune themselves to the voice of the sky”. While this sounds very poetic and something I might want to aspire to someday, it didn’t seem to fit in this context either. Finally, I found the explanation I was looking for on The Urban Dictionary, defining greybeards as follows: “In Information Technology and specifically Computer Science, the term "Grey beard" or "Greybeard" is used as a droll, sarcastic way to describe any person who is older. Typically, a Grey Beard in IT will be very specific about methodology and have well-reasoned arguments about why the methods they are using are superior to current ideas and methods. Many times, they're not wrong!”
OK, so that is what he meant. Not exactly endearing….in fact if that is what folks are thinking when they use that word, I don’t want to be that. However, there is some validity to the higher-level concept, and I could embrace it if the definition was changed slightly, something like: “An industry veteran that can bring their many years of experience to a young, inexperienced team, helping to ensure their success and full realization of their vision”. Yeah, that sounds a lot better. I could sign up for that.
better. I could sign up for that.