Mike Arrington at Techcrunch wrote a recent post based on a conversation with a venture capitalist in which that investor said:
“Consumer Internet entrepreneurs are like pro basketball players, they peak at 25, by 30 they’re usually done.”
Quite a provocative statement! While I don’t have access to lots of conclusive data about this, I’ve started companies in my early 20s and have just started one at 34 (GuideMe). I can definitely see how age, life situation, and experience has changed me when comparing and thought it would be worthwhile to discuss.
First, I think it should be noted that the original article seems to be focused at the peak age of success for consumer internet companies. My guess based on comprehensive data would be that this is probably a “more true” statement than it woud be about other types of startups such as B2B/enterprise or non-internet.
Second, everyone should be aware that even if it were true, it doesn’t mean that every 20-25 year old will have success and everyone older will fail. That’s obviously not the case.
That being said, speaking from experience and observation I think that there are some general advantages and disadvantages around the age differences.
Let’s start with the advantages of being in your early 20s:
While we can all point to that person in their 40s in great shape with a ton of energy, it’s safe to say that most people in their early 20s have a higher energy level then they do in their 30s, 40s, or 50s. Generally you can work longer and later at night.
Most people in their early 20s are not married and don’t have a child or multiple children. Having a spouse and family can do a lot for support, work/life balance, and make people happier. However, it can also cut into time spent working, add additional stress, limit travel, etc.
The Facts of Life
Whether you have a family or not, generally as we get older we start to accrue a more bills, larger bills, and we get more financially conservative. We get a mortgage, car(s), a family to support, parents or other family to potentially help support, save more for retirement, etc. When you’re 22 it’s much easier to share an apartment, eat ramen, and have no other burdens so that you can roll the dice and risk it all. It doesn’t mean it’s not possible to do that at 35, but it’s usually harder.
The “It Won’t Work” Factor
This could be also construed as being more creative or imaginative, but I think part of the benefit a 22 year old has is that they haven’t gotten jaded yet by hearing about all the reasons something can’t work. Said another way, they haven’t yet gotten used to the way things currently work so it’s easier for them to challenge the status quo.
Could someone in their 30s have created Facebook? Probably not, as that person would have been always stuck on the notion that “people want privacy and don’t want to share all this information”.
They have an easier time taking on large incumbent companies because they simply aren’t as used to them being in control of that industry.
So is all hope lost for those like me in their 30s? No. Besides the fact that there are tons of examples of people who have done it, there are some advantages to being a bit older and wiser as well:
Working Smarter Instead of Longer
While I may have been working until 2 am at the office of one of the first startups I was involved in, I was most definitely wasting time shooting the breeze with coworkers, playing games, and wasting time in other ways. My experience over the years taught me how to get more done in a shorter period of time by learning how to prioritize, focus, and eliminate distractions.
Fool Me Once…
Learning from past mistakes and getting valuable experience in lots of different aspects of business can help quite a bit. When I was 22 I knew far less about how to manage people, how to do marketing, how to do accounting, how to let people go, etc. This experience saves time and money.
It Can Be Who You Know
One of the benefits of being around longer is that you’ve made more personal connections. You’ve met more people, had more jobs, been to more conferences, worked in different areas, met more investors, etc. In this day and age this advantage has been reduced a little bit as the web has made it much easier to network and connect with people. There are also incubators like Ycombinator and Techstars, services like AngelList, and other tools that have made it easier to get in front of investors. I do know more people today than I did 10 years ago though.
Being Conservative Isn’t Always Bad
While there can be advantages to being extremely risky, knowing how and when to be conservative can keep a company from cratering and flaming out badly. I’d bet there are less crash and burn situations for entrepreneurs in their 30s and 40s then there are for companies started by people under 25. However, VCs are looking for the huge wins, so they care less about soft landings for companies.
I think this is probably a bigger issue for investors who are trying to find an edge and make decisions about what who and what they invest in. I don’t think that those who are contemplating starting a company think too deeply about an age label and actually just look directly at their own situation. Are they in a situation where they can work extremely hard? Are they in a situation to take financial risks? Is there idea disruptive and they aren’t afraid to take big chances? The answers to these questions matter more than if you’re 23 or 33 years old.
One last point is that I think this situation can and will change. 5-10 years ago the entrepreneurs in their 30s and 40s had already worked in the “non-internet” business world for a decent amount of time before the web took over. They had to adapt to the web instead of having it in their DNA of their whole working life. Now the people hitting their mid-30s such as myself are part of that “pure web DNA” generation.
Since the end of high school I’ve been on the web for all my real work. That’s probably only the case for a people a year or two older than me. Which means I think it’s quite possible that we’ll see more cases like Andrew Mason at Groupon, Dennis Crowley at Foursquare, Mark Pincus at Zynga, Ev/Biz/Jack at Twitter, and others who did numerous other smaller internet related companies before they created the huge consumer companies they are building now. I think they’d all say their past successes/failures have helped them in their current companies. (Yes, I know Crowley did Dodgeball and Ev did Blogger but they also weren’t 22 and right out of college for those companies).
Personally, I’m planning on not being a statistic.