Are Entrepreneurs like Wine?

Scott Francis
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Forbes reports on a Kauffmann study that shows that great entrepreneurs are older than you think:

My colleagues and I did a study, funded by the Kauffman Foundation, that surveyed 500 successful high growth founders. Against all stereotypes, we found that the typical successful founder was 40 years old, with at least 6-10 years of industry experience. Twice as many successful entrepreneurs are more than 50 as under 25.

Don’t expect this research to change the prevailing view in Silicon Valley and VC firms:

How old do you think someone should be for the best chance at entrepreneurial success?

If you said 20, or 22, or 25, you are not alone.

It wasn’t that long ago that age signified wisdom. But in the last decade Silicon Valley routinely, even systematically, has overlooked the old in search of the youthful. A couple of years ago, entrepreneur and TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington wrote a blog post called, “Internet Entrepreneurs Are Like Professional Athletes, They Peak Around 25.” The average age of a Y-Combinator founder is only 26.

The general premise for young entrepreneurs is as follows:

  • No entanglements or commitments in life (yet) – including family, expensive car payments, or mortgage payments
  • Willing to “scrape by” because they haven’t gotten used to any creature comforts
  • Not held back by cynicism or pre-conceived notions of what is possible
  • “Knowing is the enemy of learning”

And the unspoken additional aspect is that it is potentially easier to take advantage of younger founders at the negotiating table.  This starts with convincing them that they should subsist on Ramen and kill themselves (almost literally) to birth their idea, rather than to take time to think as well as act.

Counterbalancing the arguments supporting youth are the arguments supporting experience:

  • Emotional maturity and life experience.  No matter how “mature” a young entrepreneur is, until they fire someone with a spouse and children and a mortgage payment, or fired a good friend, they haven’t “lived” that experience to gain the empathy required to be an effective leader. Some experiences can’t be cheated, they have to be lived.
  • Experienced entrepreneurs have lived through hard times before.  Maybe been through layoffs on both sides.  They don’t panic when Winter is Coming, they prepare and thrive.
  • Experienced founders know how to build and reward teams, and how to share the spotlight.
  • Experienced founders are likely to be more effective at the negotiating table – with customers and with investors.
  • Experienced entrepreneurs are going to know how to be operators as well as glass breakers.
  • Having/Knowing some history is a good way to avoid repeating it

I’ll throw in one more thing that an early mentor of mine said nearly 20 years ago.  I had been his intern for a summer, and I expressed surprise at how quickly he was picking up new software programming paradigms and languages (two new object oriented languages over one summer, after years of FORTRAN).  His response: “you know, some people think you only learn when you’re young, but what they don’t realize is that learning is a skill, too.  And you can get better at it as you get older. I’ve been practicing learning for a lot longer than you have.”  And he could back it up.  He learned French as an adult and although I’m sure his accent left something to be desired, he was fluent.  He was a high energy physicist by training and trade, not a software engineer, but was successful in both arenas.

And maybe that is one more element of successful experienced entrepreneurs – that they’ve been learning for a long time and their eyes and ears are wide open.  I know I have acquired a healthy respect for what I don’t know, an awareness I lacked in my youth.  Meanwhile, what really matters isn’t age or experience, but results…

 

 

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