Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The "bad news for graybeards as entrepreneurs" meme rears it's head again- or - In defense of the over 40 entrepreneur

Well shit.

Here we go again. Now Valleywag says you can only do a really big win startup if you're in your 20's and then Fred Wilson back peddles (sort of) on his back peddle about funding in their 20's vs. over 40 entrepreneurs .

Bad news for the graybeards: a quick check on the great tech companies of the last three decades shows a pretty brutal rule. The most spectacular successes are launched by founders still in their twenties. The peak age: 26. Within a year of that age were Google's Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Apple's Steve Wozniak, Yahoo's Jerry Yang, Skype's Janus Friis, Chad Hurley from Youtube, and Tom Anderson from Myspace. Full post here
So I don't know if youth is an advantage in the tech/startup world, but it certainly isn't a disadvantage. And I see our job as being able to work with young entrepreneurs in a way that allows them to be their best while helping them where they need it. It's something we are working very hard on perfecting. Full post here.
At least Fred tempers his with 'it's a state of mind' more than anything else. He's right. It IS a state of mind. I refer, again, to my post last year "Are early stage start ups and normal lives incompatible?"

Of course a 23 year old with no family, no mortgage, no kids, no college funds, no IRA or 401K to fund in perfect health (and no medical or health insurance bills), a paid for 1990 volvo and 3 roommates (who are also your co-founders), no cube life/big company work experience with the requisite cynicism/dilbert disease and with no fear and a 140 IQ unimpaired by 20 years of (pick one): Drinking, drugs, bad relationships, lousy kids, all of the above bills, etc. has an advantage.


Life can wear you down. And it does most people. Doing a startup requires dedication, focus, naive belief in the impossible, more dedication, long hours and sacrificing 'life balance'; at least for awhile. That's why alot of entrepreneurs kill themselves and succeed (or fail) take off a few months (or in some cases a few years if the battle was particularly gruesome) and do it again.

I would put forth that it takes a particular (some would say peculiar, others would say slightly warped) personality type that's similar in some ways to the addictive personality to do a startup company. In our case, the addiction is the process of creating something useful and valuable from nothing and marshaling it through all the creativity, elation, pain, fear and fun that doing it entails.

Age isn't the defining factor. However, it does change the equation. I would bet fewer over 40's have it in them to do it than the same personality type does in their 20's, for instance.

Our society tries it's best to beat individuality and creativity out of you as soon as you hit 'the workforce'.

Even the good companies do it. Near the end of my tenure at Apple, my boss had an executive consultant (who worked with executives and CEO's to make them them better at their jobs) work with his reports. She set up as series of meetings with me for a 6 week period. In our first meeting, we talked for 4 hours. At the end of it, she said "Scott, I'm cancelling the rest of our meetings'. Thinking I'd done something wrong I asked why. She said "your one of those guys that drive corporations crazy. You have the qualities all of them are trying to bring out in themselves, but they can't control you. They want to find a way to tame it, and still have it. If I put you through this, it's like taming a wild stallion (no shit, that's exactly the phrase she used) and this company needs people like you". My boss was a little pissed, but, interestingly, he also gave me alot more funding and leeway after that.

Most people in their 40's have had it beaten out of them. Even big company senior execs and CEO's (there's a whole consulting industry built around it). Them, maybe, more than most.

But some of us survive the process. Not many, but some. And those of us that do are the over 40's that are capable of doing startups.

And we bring experience, contacts and resources no 23 year old has.

So...if we over 40's successfully run the product, market and funding gauntlet alongside the 20 somethings, even with a graybeard, we shouldn't be written off or filtered out just because of a birthday.

Granted, I'm biased, but if you ask me, smart investors should seek out that hard to find seasoned just right over 40 entrepreneur. There's likely 1 of us for every hundred 20 somethings of like mind, but if you can find us, we're worth it.

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