How Old is Too Old to Start a Great Company?
Sometimes it seems like there's a sign hanging over the doors of some top venture capital firms reading, "No Old People Need Apply." It's not hard to understand why. Investors are looking for the next big thing, and the truth is that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Michael Dell, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Mark Zuckerberg all were in their late teens or 20s when they launched their companies.
But is that the end of the story? If you've passed the age of 30—or God forbid, 40—without launching your first wildly successful venture, is it too late? Are you condemned to the cubicle life forever? True entrepreneurs leverage their attributes and experiences to develop unique insights and build their ventures. But it's still worth exploring whether younger entrepreneurs are better positioned.
In researching our new book, Breakthrough Entrepreneurship: The Proven Framework for Building Brilliant New Ventures, here are the most common arguments we heard suggesting that younger entrepreneurs have all the advantages:
Argument No. 1: "Younger entrepreneurs have better ideas."
Did Brin, Page, Zuckerberg and those other young entrepreneurs have their youth to thank for their insights? The honest answer is, "Sort of." Great ideas can come from anyone who truly understands a market and its customers’ needs. Those founders all applied their talents in the application of emerging technology to consumer markets, where youth can indeed help.
Still, regardless of your age or background, if you examine a market critically, you can develop insights into what customers in that market truly need. Who knows better: a 50-year-old product manager at Cisco Systems Inc., or the customers who have grown up using Cisco products? Trick question. Either can develop an insight that could lead to an amazing entrepreneurial idea.
Argument No. 2: "Younger entrepreneurs don't know 'what can't be done.'"
Is inexperience an advantage? Younger entrepreneurs often don't have the disadvantage of having to outgrow too-small expectations. But they also don't have as many experiences of living through dynamic change, which can inspire older entrepreneurs to contemplate with awe what comes next.
Believing in a Quixotic idea is kind of romantic—until it actually fails. We'd rather see entrepreneurs who are naturally inclined to test, test, test good ideas and learn with as much certainty, and as little initial investment, whether they're likely to succeed or not.
Argument No. 3: "Younger entrepreneurs have greater focus."
Two 20-something Silicon Valley entrepreneurs we know told us about their setup when they launched their company. They rented a house, moved in beds so that the entire staff could live on site, and packed the place with tables and computers. "It was the perfect house to start a company," said co-founder Darian Shirazi of Fwix. "We were breathing more of the product than we breathed air."
Maybe it's easier to care about only one thing—your new venture—if you haven't taken-on other commitments. But, really, how long can anyone keep up that kind of pace?
Argument No. 4: "Younger entrepreneurs are more nimble."
The ability to quickly learn and pivot is a critical entrepreneurial skill. But do younger entrepreneurs truly come by it more easily? Robin Chase was a 40-year-old mother of three before she launched her first successful company, Zipcar. It was a difficult first year, and Chase realized she needed to increase prices to simply break even. It was a setback, but having had more than two decades of career experience, Chase viewed the change with perspective.
Sure, some older people can become set in their ways—but if you're reading this article and considering launching a new venture, chances are you're not one of them.
Argument No. 5: "Younger entrepreneurs have lower opportunity cost."
This might in fact be true. At 22, for example, a budding entrepreneur likely hasn't established himself or herself in a career, and probably doesn’t carry a lot of financial overhead.
But the truth is low overhead is a good thing regardless of your age. Save some money, don’t indulge on too many unnecessary expenses. Happiness in life comes from relationships, doing something meaningful and other mostly intangible things. Whatever your age, avoid the trap (and expense) of consumerism.
The Big Picture
Harlan Sanders turned 62 before he opened the first Kentucky Fried Chicken. Sam Walton was 44 when he started the first true Wal-Mart in 1962. Don and Doris Fisher founded The Gap when Don was 41. He left a $3 billion estate when he died including one of the world’s most important collections of post- World War II art.
What did they all have in common besides their relatively older ages? They built great, lasting companies after years of experience in their industries. Look to them for inspiration, and realize that anyone, young or old, who can develop a unique insight has a shot at building an amazing new venture.
JON BURGSTONE | Columnist | Professor, UC Berkeley
Jon Burgstone was co-founder of SupplierMarket, acquired by Ariba for $1.1B. He now teaches at Berkeley, where he helped launch the Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology. He is co-author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship.
BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist
Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.