The belief that startups are a young person’s game is completely erroneous. Digital natives, born and raised in the world of social, mobile and Internet, may have had a first mover advantage in launching some of today’s high-profile tech startups, but that means little absent the ageless ability to think in the abstract, challenge accepted norms and persevere through the creative process..
The most influential article I have read on the subject was Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 piece in the New Yorker, “Late Bloomers“. Once I got past his rather loquacious back story of Picasso and Cézanne (and forgave him for following up Outliers with Blink), his insightful hypothesis became clear, society easily recognizes individuals who possess a creative vision (think Jobs, Zuckerberg, Mozart or Picasso). We label these individuals prodigies and we try to emulate them – even though we do not (and cannot) create in the same way they do. The vast majority of us, are more like Cézanne – we create through an experimental process which can span years or even decades. The challenge is that, before success is achieved, the work of the experimental creative, or late bloomer, cannot be distinguished from the average and, therefore, potential goes unrecognized..
Before sympathy for the late bloomer overwhelms you, check out my SlideShare presentation at the end of this post which highlights ten disruptors, media tycoons and titans of tech that found success well into their 30′s and 40′s.
A hypothesis and anecdotal evidence is one thing, quantifiable data is another. “Is There A Peak Age for Entrepreneurship?“, a 2011 TechCrunch article by Adeo Ressi (founder of the Founder Institute) is the best piece I have read on the issue of age correlating to startup success. In order to identify the traits of successful entrepreneurs, the Founder Institute conducted over 3,000 personality and aptitude tests on applicants worldwide, and then carefully tracked the progress of almost 1,000 enrolled founders and 350 graduates..
The result? Older age has shown in the data to correlate with more successful entrepreneurs up to the age of 40, after which it has limited or no impact. Ressi concluded in full:
Age is only one factor among many to predict the success of entrepreneurs, and anybody at any age can break any molds put forward by “experts.” However, it’s clear that the stories of a few “college-dropout turned millionaire” (or billionaire) startup founders have clouded both the mass media and the tech industry from reality. We have romanticized the idea of a young founder because, well, it’s a great story, but these stories are not the norm. In the end, classic biases of gender, race, and age need to be discarded for a real science of success.
The lesson to be learned? If you create through trial and error, as most of us do, you’re just hitting your stride by 40 so go conquer the world!