September 11, 2020 • Jason Dressel
Happy 20th to your company, and well done for making it through two decades in business. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, your company is one of only 25% of new businesses that have made it to 15 years or more, a statistic that hasn’t changed much since the 1990s. It’s no small accomplishment, and deserves recognition with your colleagues, customers and other stakeholders.
We’ve found that organizations hitting the big 2-0 are probably going to have a number of shared characteristics. These include:
The average age of an entrepreneur starting a business is 42 years old. That is the average, so there’s just as likely a group of 30-somethings kicking off a business as a group of 40- and 50-somethings. Yet assuming this average age is likely to only get younger as generations, and technology, advance, it’s probable that your organization’s founders are still actively involved in the business and somewhere between 40 and 70 years old. This means getting the story about themselves and the foundation of the organization is straightforward—an oral history or similar interview with them and others involved in the inception of the company gets you firsthand knowledge of how the business was started, and their thoughts, feelings and perceptions of the niche your company fulfills. Cherish it—much older organizations often have to go to great lengths to glean what their founders were thinking, piecing together scraps of information and surmising why someone said or acted as they did.
Being less than 20 years old means there are aspects of the business that you probably take for granted. For example, when you opened on day one, you probably had a website and a company email system. Social media such as Facebook and LinkedIn have been around for over half your existence. Printed items that chart your advancement as an organization are probably not voluminous, certainly not compared to older organizations. Probably most of those who started the company took items such as the first website or early emails for granted, not seeing the historical potential in retaining them. Such emails and older versions of websites that could help tell your story may have been deleted or sucked into a physical or cloud backup and may be challenging to access, if available at all. Finding such items may also mean having to search different backup formats—perhaps DVDs or thumb drives in the bottom drawer, a server gathering dust in an office, or possibly in a cloud but without any trace of the username and password needed to retrieve it. Just because your history is more recent doesn’t make it more accessible, despite it being largely digital.
Let’s face it, your founder(s) probably thought the worst thing they’d face in the run-up to the 2000s was the Millennium Bug, and the threat that on 01/01/00 computers throughout the world would be thrown into chaos. Perhaps they waited, saw that their PC still turned on, and decided to kick off their enterprise. Then 9/11 happened, and with it the War on Terror. Certainly if your organization is in the defense or IT industry, you were impacted. But virtually all businesses that were around then and are still around now have a story to tell about this seminal event, and how it changed either what they did, how they operated or what they thought. Similarly, other events of more recent times—The Great Recession and the mortgage meltdown, and now the pandemic—are events that required your organization to adapt in order to survive, perhaps doubling down on some areas of your business and changing or exiting others. Ensuring you have a record of how the organization adapted requires more than mining your HR department’s emails; it might involve more systematic efforts to fully understand how your company faced such external challenges. Done correctly, stories about times of crisis can provide a strong rallying cry for employees and customers, and prove that your company has “the right stuff” whatever externalities are thrown your direction.
According to a study by Professor Jay Ritter at University of Florida, the median age for an organization undertaking an IPO over the period 1980-2019 is eight years. The median age has risen somewhat recently—it was 10 years in the 2010-2019 period—but the fact is that, by age 20, your organization may have been listed or involved in either being acquired or acquiring someone else. While there are many private family-owned businesses, odds are that if your company has been successful, it has had opportunities for change in ownership or in who you own. For an anniversary, this poses some interesting challenges. If you’ve been acquired, is your anniversary the date of your founding, or the founding of your acquiring company? If you were the acquirer, do your acquired companies share your founding date and join in your marking of the event? And if you were listed on the stock market, does that form another pivot point in your story that needs to be detailed as proof during your anniversary year that you’ve hit another milestone?
Organizations that started life in the post-2000 era are, like Gen Z, tech natives. No one needed to sell the founder on the value of a website. E-commerce was not laughed at as a pipe dream. And odds are, you’ve a lot of millennials in your employee base. Why does that matter for an anniversary? Because they’re part of your target audience for marking your 20th, so you’ll need to ensure the tactics you devise will resonate with them.
So clearly there are some characteristics which your organization shares with other soon-to-be 20-year-old organizations. What tactics should you consider? Fact is, after over 40 years of helping companies with their anniversaries, we believe the list of tactics is roughly the same for an organization that’s 20 as one that’s 200. How you execute the tactics will be unique, and the ease of access to the stories and content may be more straightforward for a younger company, but the actual tactics themselves don’t really vary. They may include a combination of these:
Whatever tactics are chosen, they need to align to objectives set upfront, the resources available, and the character and essence of the company. They also need to tell a coherent story about the organization.
One of the advantages of marking 20 years is the relative ease in constructing and telling your story. As mentioned, odds are that the founders are not only still alive but also still engaged with the company. Gathering stories from employees is a live event, able to be done remotely and at scale. Contrast this to older organizations whose perspective on the past often may be dependent on a few employees from the past who had a sense of history. Getting the story correct and authentic gets only harder with time as the organization ages and grows.
This is usually a tough decision—two decades or a quarter century? We’ve witnessed many companies do both, viewing an anniversary as a rare gift from the Calendar Gods. Like an Olympic sponsorship, an anniversary is an opportunity that comes along only every few years and is the focus of attention for a limited time. It’s also a rare situation where marking an occasion again after five years is perfectly acceptable, unlike, say, celebrating year 95 vs. the centennial.
So again, well done on being in the minority of businesses that make it this far. As our founder, Bruce Weindruch, often says, “You’re not good because you’re old; you’re old because you’re good.”
For more ideas about how to mark your corporate anniversary, check out our comprehensive Guide to Celebrating Your Company Anniversary.
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