In the final weeks of 2017, a ProPublica/New York Times investigative feature revealed that many large companies, including Amazon and Goldman Sachs, had been using Facebook preferences to hide employment ads from users over age 36.
This was the latest in countless national features and op-eds that have, in recent years, painted an increasingly glum outlook for “older” job-seekers. Depending on the moment, the definition of “older” could be any number from 35 to the much-feared 40 to early 50s.
Although millennials are pointed to as the group that’s taking away older generations’ jobs, the truth is, millennials also face significant challenges in today’s job market. Offshoring, automation and “the gig economy” have given corporations many ways to eliminate senior positions (and the commensurate salaries) from their payrolls. Certainly, some are exploiting that opportunity — and exploiting all ages of experienced talent in the process.
However, the professional landscape is by no means barren of opportunity, even in notoriously ageist industries like tech. Advances in manufacturing and energy and other industries eliminate some jobs, but other jobs and areas of expertise are created. Tech may be a young, forward-looking industry, but a person who’s been involved since “the early” days — of the Nineties — can bring tremendous perspective to a new area of tech, while still being decades from getting their AARP card.
For every under-employed person who posts a rant against ageism on their Facebook page, there is another person who’s figured out how to reinvent their professional profile, update their expertise, and sidestep the whole rat race.
Today, we are very pleased to follow the career trajectory of Doug Newcomb. A writer first, Doug spent most of the first half of his career as a magazine staffer, then became a “six figure freelancer” after his first layoff, and a successful consultant after a second layoff. Now, in his third career decade, he’s a conference producer and a thought leader in the automotive technology space.
Describe your special expertise and what it encompasses, and which industries it touches.
My special expertise is automotive technology — specifically what has come to be known as smart mobility. Connected car is a subset, but it also encompasses autonomous vehicles, ride-sharing services like Uber, and wider-scope mobility programs like moovel.
The industries it touches include automotive, suppliers like Bosch and Harman; the tech companies now getting involved (Google, Apple); and policy is a very important part of it. We deal with mayors, congressmen and state governors. Also academia — we deal with a lot of research organizations.
What was your background before you became the media expert in connected car tech?
I spent 20 years as an automotive journalist. I was on staff at Car Audio and Electronics Magazine from 1989-1997. Then different magazines like Car Stereo Review from 1997-2005. I freelanced from 2005-2008. My wife bought me a book called ‘Six Figure Freelancing’, and I quickly became a six-figure freelancer. Then in 2008, I went back to what would be my last staff gig, at Edmunds. When I was laid off in 2012, things had changed — everyone was writing more content for less money. So I thought, “How can I not get trapped in this ‘hamster on a wheel’ scenario of cranking out content?”
It was actually really good timing, because at that time, “connected car” as a subset of automotive tech really started to take off. So 2012 was when I really made the transition.
Was the process of creating a new niche serendipitous, or did you identify an opportunity for you to fill a gap, and work purposefully toward that?
A bit of both. I’m the cliché of opportunity hitting preparedness. Ten years ago, there weren’t a lot of people in the space. I just kept showing up, staying in the game. Gaining experience, reputation, gaining relationships. And that led to me seeing the bigger picture.
You successfully transitioned from content marketing to business strategy consulting. How did this happen?
I made a concerted effort to brand myself. I went thorough a branding exercise, for which I hired an expert to come up with brand identity materials (logo, tagline) social media strategy, and a website. I became C3 Group, which used to stand for Connected Car Conference, but is now: Conferences, Consulting, Content.
My business consulting practice now encompasses start-up advisory, thought leadership strategy, event activation strategy (i.e. figuring out how a company should activate at SXSW, and what other conferences they should be at). And investment consulting [competitive analysis, white papers, due diligence — which includes taking investors on tours of trade show floors and guiding them to the most interesting smart mobility exhibits and companies].
How did you decide to expand from content/consulting services to organizing a conference?
I was asked to speak at events, to put together panels, and eventually to produce entire conferences, so it evolved. In 2012, I really got serious about it. I launched a blog, and I followed up with people I’d already done stuff with in the conference space.
I saw an opportunity to bring different elements and groups together: technology, electronics, policy, research. Not only the content side, but the networking as well.
How do you come up with the program/attendee/speaker list for your conference events?
We’ve all been to these boring PowerPoint fests that are all the same people speaking in an echo chamber. I never want to create that. I try to put together the kind of conference I would want to go to. What topics are not being talked about, and for topics that are being talked about, what else can I bring to the conversation? What can I find that’s different, fresh and of value to the audience, media and sponsors? A big part of our events is about networking. Attendees can be around thought leaders and all the people they attract.
I’m always watching the journalists in the room to see if they’re going to get up and walk out. If they don’t I feel like I’ve done my job, because they’re the toughest critics.
What is the biggest challenge you face in your business?
I’ve been trying to scale back on writing, but some of the top outlets in the field approach me, so it’s hard to say no — especially since that keeps my name out there and pays well. But it’s really hard. Writing is like being on an assembly line. You know what your output needs to be and what you’re going to get paid for. But writing is a finite thing. Like a lot of people, I’m writing more for less money each year. With conferences and consulting, I’m building something.
In those categories, the challenge is being able to scale: We’re a small company, we operate on a lean budget and we’re going up against groups that have a lot more resources. They can throw huge parties, with great food, and entertainment. But if you don’t have the content, that only goes so far.
As someone who found a niche to thrive in the third decade of his career, how would you advise people who are struggling to retain confidence/relevance as they age?
I look around and I feel like the old dude in a way, but you have to turn it around and say, “These newer people don’t have the experience I do, or the relationships I do.” It’s like capital you build. As a person with decades in the industry, your secret sauce is knowing the issues, the people, the topics.
Also, for better or worse, a lot of positioning is about image. Show up looking professional. Think about the image you’re projecting. As goofy and uncomfortable as that feels, you have to do it.
A lot of journalists have a chip on their shoulder. They’re snarky, cynical, with attitude. A lot of that is insecurity. Lose that chip. Stay sharp, stay relevant, have confidence in your knowledge, and use that as your currency.
What is the biggest psychological change in how you conduct business from 15 years ago to today?
Just what I described in the previous answer. The biggest shift for me was putting all of that aside. Reframing the view, from entitled cynical journalist to being open and presenting myself as “I’ve built up a lot of knowledge, and I can offer a lot.”
The biggest psychological hurdle was learning to promote myself. When I started this out, the idea of being branded made me cringe. I had this mental picture of being held down and branded with a hot iron, like livestock.
My wife, at this time, said, “Every time you meet someone, imagine that there is a thought bubble over their head, waiting to be filled with opinions about you. With what do you want to fill that bubble? “