Being a startup founder today is "cool."

It's a lot "cooler" to say you're the founder of a company when you're in your 20s or even 30s than it is to start your first venture when you're in your 40s, 50s, 60s, or above, because there is a significant amount of responsibility that comes with leading and building a company. And being able to say you're starting down that path at such a young age is something many people admire.

Unfortunately, it's a double-edged sword to venture into the world of entrepreneurship so early.

While there is absolutely something to be said for being a young self-starter, what you gain in independence is what you lose in experience. As an entrepreneur for over 40 years, I often find myself working alongside young, smart, and hungry people. Sometimes, they're co-founders and we have a positive business relationship. Other times, they're young and hungry employees at promising companies. But in both cases, I see plenty of opportunities for older entrepreneurs like myself to help younger self-starters make decisions that aren't based purely on intuition.

Unfortunately, these questions don't get asked often enough. When you're young, you always want to prove you can do it by yourself (I know I did).

I remember when the movie The Founder came about, detailing Ray Kroc's rise as the man who brought McDonald's franchise to the forefront of American culture. He was 52 years old when he dove headfirst into that venture--and McDonald's came after dozens of other startup attempts. And I believe a huge reason Kroc was able to succeed was that he had spent a lifetime learning hard lessons, some related to entrepreneurship, some not. He knew what he didn't know, and was able to apply decades of experience to building a massively successful franchise.

Another great example of lessons learned is Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus. (He actually endorsed my book, All In.) And while millions upon millions of people know of the brand Home Depot, what most people don't know is that Bernie started the company when he was 50 years old. This was far from his first venture.

These stories are what come to mind when I see young and hungry founders leap into the world of entrepreneurship, but without the wherewithal to fill the gaps of their own knowledge. Most people don't even know that the average age of a startup entrepreneur isn't in the 20s--it's in the 40s

Instead, they think they can do it alone, or think they need business school--when what they really need is some real-world experience.

A mentor is a great way to shorten your growth curve.

Formal education was something I never really had. I dropped out of college after I realized my company, Wilmar, a wholesale hardware distribution business, was already doing bigger deals than what my professor had personally experienced. For me, school was nice, but it wasn't worth the cost. I went on to take Wilmar public less than a decade later, and have founded and invested in handfuls of companies ever since. 

The issue I have always had with formal education as it relates to entrepreneurship is that education doesn't show you what you don't know. I still believe that, for most people, getting an undergraduate degree is important to build a general basis of discipline--and graduate school is a great path for certain types of individuals. But school won't be the thing that explains to you how to deal with difficult customers or tough situations with employees--or how to scale a service business, or any of the other stresses that come with building a company. These are things you either have to learn by working for someone else, or from someone who has personally experienced those same challenges. 

This is why I believe entrepreneurs who start their first venture in their late 30s, 40s, and beyond end up having something that young entrepreneurs don't: life experience. 

The confidence you have in your decisions once you move into midlife is a far cry from the kind of decision making that happens in your 20s. You've grown up. You've faced life head-on, worked for a few different companies, dealt with different kinds of bosses. You've gained valuable experience that can help inform the decisions you need to make when you're the one leading the ship.

If you're a young founder, or a hungry employee looking to move up the ranks, the thing you need to solve for is exposure to experience. Trust me, nobody is going to think you're incapable if you ask questions and look for opportunities to learn from those older than you. 

If anything, they'll take that as a sign of maturity, and be even more willing to help you. 

How to Succeed as the Youngest Person in the Room
Published on: Aug 7, 2018