Older Entrepreneurs Have the Advantage (Sorry, Silicon Valley)
Funders and Founders recently published a fascinating infographic on Twitter of 11 company founders who launched their businesses at age 35 or older.
The idea, of course, was that you don't have to be a young pup to start a company. The founders of Pandora, Zynga, Zipcar and Intel, just to name a few, were all 35 years or older when they started their companies.
Why is this a pertinent topic in 2014? For one thing, as Noam Scheiber's thoroughly reported piece recently published in The New Republic illustrates, there's a demonstrable age bias in Silicon Valley--demonstrable enough for Scheiber to write that "Silicon Valley has become one of the most ageist places in America."
For another, mainstream media is quick to spotlight the youth of contemporary entrepreneurs.
Of course, youth in a founder is not an altogether bad thing. Scheiber points out:
No doubt there are valid reasons to prefer funding youngsters. If, for example, a company is in the market for teenage eyeballs, it probably makes sense to have a founder who's not long from adolescence. Often these entrepreneurs turn out to be world-class programmers, having affixed themselves to a keyboard since long before puberty. "By the time they’re twenty-two, they're already expert. They've put in the ten thousand hours," says Marc Andreessen, who cofounded Netscape in his early twenties and is one of Silicon Valley's most respected venture capitalists.
But that doesn't mean experience is meaningless to entrepreneurs.
The Age-Old Business Cliche
In fact, about 13 years ago--after the dot-com boom had seen more than it's fair share of youthful founders--I wrote an Inc. story that could potentially debunk that oldest of business-world cliches: that experience matters. To research the story, I spoke to Steven N. Kaplan, a professor of entrepreneurship and finance (both then and now) at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business. He told me in no uncertain terms that experience is always an advantage for entrepreneurs.
He even threatened to hang up on me if I kept badgering him with my unprovable contrarian theories.
For the article(which you can find here) I also spoke to seven serial founders, all of whom agreed with what Kaplan had said: That they were much better entrepreneurs the second time around.
In short, you can see that being an older, more experienced founder has plenty of advantages. Here are three more:
1. You have a keener eye for whether the world is ripe for your idea. The barcode was patented in 1952--a whopping 22 years before it was first used at a supermarket checkout counter. Likewise, Amazon's Kindle came out in 2007, some 15 years after Sony's first e-reader saw the light of day. The ecosystem (high-speed connectivity, mobile devices, downloadable content, and simpatico publishers) had finally arrived. An experienced entrepreneur, who has seen trends come and go, typically has a keener eye for how ready the existing infrastructure is (or isn't) for her new idea.
In an article on LinkedIn, Vivek Wadhwa, a Fellow at Stanford's Rock Center for Corporate Governance, cites a great example of an older entrepreneur who waited for technology to catch up with his idea:
During the mid-1990s, cardiologist and researcher David Albert had the idea to develop a handheld device that displays an electrocardiogram....In those days, even the most powerful handheld computers didn't have the needed capabilities. So Albert dropped the idea because it was impossible.
And then came the iPhone in 2007--which has more processing power than some of the supercomputers of yesteryear. In 2010, at the age of 56, Albert started Alivecor with $250,000 from his savings. His goal was to build an iPhone case that performs an EKG. This device was approved by the FDA last December and now retails for $200--with a prescription.
2. You have more money socked away, which you can devote to your business. Not many under-35 entrepreneuers would have $250,000 in savings to invest in their own startup, the way Albert did witih Alivecor.
Furthermore, experienced entrepreneurs recognize the importance of bringing their own savings to the table. Larry Kim, the founder of WordStream, has cited this--putting your own money behind your idea--as one of his key lessons learned. Nicolas Warren, 31, the founder of Perfect Fuel Chocolate, told me not long ago that the one thing he'd do differently--if starting his three-year-old company over again--is wait longer to begin. The reason? "I would've worked another year, and horded my capital," he admitted.
3. You have more sources of emotional support. "More mature adults tend to have more significant social and family supports to give them resilience to survive the brutal psychological assaults of creating a company," writes Jules Pieri, 47-year-old founder of The Grommet, in a Harvard Business Review article called The 'Older' Entrepreneur's Secret Weapon. "For me, family provides a separate identity outside my company, a consistent outlet for rest and relaxation, and a safe haven to escape the relentless pressures of building a business.
"These social supports go far to replenish the necessary reserves of energy, courage, and tenacity that are essential to successfully leading a start-up."