82% of people under 25 say they want to start their own business. And we generally think of successful entrepreneurs as being young. After all, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg were all in their 20s when they founded Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook. So how old are you? Too old, possibly to quit your job and start your own business?
Do you feel that at 40 or 50 you lack (or will lack) the thrusting dynamism or disruptive ideas to be a successful entrepreneur? You may be right. But this in all likelihood has nothing to do with your age. As someone who coaches entrepreneurs of different ages (my youngest is 20, my oldest 66) I have always said that if you believe youth itself is the elixir of successful entrepreneurship, you are wrong. Now, what was previously just a hunch has been confirmed by extensive research published by the Harvard Business Review.
The study, conducted by professors from MIT and Northwestern, together with the principal economist from the Census Bureau, found that even in consumer-facing high tech industries, the average age of founders falls in the early forties. In other industries such as oil and gas or biotechnology, the average age is closer to 47.
When you look at the most successful startups, the average age of the founder (at launch) goes up, not down. Overall, empirical evidence shows that successful entrepreneurs tend to be middle-aged, not young.
The study’s findings point to entrepreneurial performance rising sharply with age before peaking in the late fifties.
Greater access to financial resources and deeper social networks may contribute. Work experience certainly plays a critical role. “Relative to founders with no relevant experience, those with at least three years of prior work experience in the same narrow industry as their startup were 85% more likely to launch a highly successful start-up.”
So, why are we biased against older entrepreneurs, and older people generally?
As a coach, I have found that when it comes to how we see ourselves, and others, we nearly always assume the perspective of 20 years ago. So, at 45 we judge ourselves as our 25-year-old self would have done. We tell ourselves we’re tired and past it. At 65 years we see ourselves as ready to retire because that’s the perspective we had about being 65 when we were 45.
This problem is made worse by the fact that so many of our ideas were shaped when we were in our teens and early twenties, when our grandparents were in their 50s or 60s and anyone past the age of 40 seemed ancient.
That’s why it can be so helpful to check in with your future self and have a chat with yourself from the perspective of 20 years in the future. If you are 45, your 65-year-old self will doubtless urge you not to squander the energy and vitality you currently have. If you’re 65, your 85-year-old self will be even more encouraging. And if you’re only 25 and think you’re too old to launch a new business, your 45-year-old self will hopefully give you the kind of slap which this reality check from Harvard suggests you deserve.
I often ask clients to find role models who were their age or older when they launched hugely successful companies. The founders of McDonald’s, Coca Cola, and Kentucky Fried Chicken, for instance, were all over 50 when they launched their empires.
Journalist Vera Wang did not even begin designing clothes professionally until the age of 39 and Reed Hastings started Netflix DVD rental when he was 37 and didn’t begin streaming till he was 47.
Jim Butenschoen was 65 when he retired from the IT industry to start the now hugely successful Career Academy of Hair Design.
At 52, Carol Gardner, recently divorced, got a dog at the suggestion of her therapist. A picture she took of her dog, Zelda, won a local Christmas card contest, inspiring her to start a greeting card company which she named after her dog. Today, at 72, Carol and her $50 million company, Zelda Wisdom, are still going strong and she’s starting up another venture.
You could even find an inspiring role model closer to home. I channel my late grandfather, Erwin Blumenfeld who fled the Nazis to arrive in New York with one suitcase at the age of 47, never having made a living as a professional photographer. He would go on to take more covers for Vogue than anyone before or since, becoming, for a while, the highest paid photographer in the world.
In the words of the HBR: “If you were faced with two entrepreneurs and knew nothing about them besides their age, you would do better, on average, betting on the older one.”