Are Old People Better Entrepreneurs? The Case for — and Against — Aging

Last week Newsweek ran an article entitled The Golden Age of Innovation which included an extraordinary factoid: People over 55 are twice as likely to found successful technology companies than people between 20 and 34. I was surprised to read this — I haven’t met many founders of internet companies in their 60s, and I buy the logic that people, broadly speaking, become more risk averse with age. On the other hand, successful older people regain the luxury to take risks, and in so far as they are more risk averse, this may be an advantage — Malcolm Galdwell wrote a profile of Ted Turner for the New Yorker in January in which he made the case that successful entrepreneurs are, in fact, more risk averse than generally assumed. I think he’s right.

My view is that youth, at it’s core, is the condition of not knowing what you are up against. This confers both advantages and disadvantages — I would wager that younger entrepreneurs are more likely to fail, but they are also more likely to create disruptive technologies. Younger people have less data to work with and consequently a poorer understanding of the odds, which means they are far more likely to hurdle themselves with full force in directions that are longshots. There is also the obvious advantage of being closer to new behaviors that are emerging in younger generations that will become prevalent over time. This can also be a disadvantage, because many early markets are inadequately mature to support businesses, but with persistence, in periods of rapid change like this one,  this extra visibility is a great asset.

I am 42, and will be turning 43 later this month. I have only recently identified youth as a condition from which I am recovering. I feel appreciative both of what I am giving up and growing into. We are doing a lot of hiring at Babble right now — we will have grown the team from about 18 to 30 this year. When I am interviewing people, I am always conscious of the trade off between hunger and experience. It’s great to get people in that sweet spot when they have learned enough to be effectual, but they still have something to prove. I consider myself in that sweet spot — I have never been more hungry to succeed, I don’t know exactly what I am doing but I am systematically figuring it out, and the fact that I have a couple young kids at home makes me both more tenacious and more careful than I was fifteen years ago.

On the other hand, I am less willing than I once was to take long odds and go without a salary to turn the world upside down. That’s a privilege that I enjoyed fifteen years ago but didn’t recognize as an endemic, life-stage advantage. That’s the trick, I think — to recognize the advantages of your phase of life, and play to your strength. Now, deep in my early-middle-age (thank you, Fred Wilson, for calling 50 the beginning of middle age), I am working to re-earn that privilege. Youth, the second time around anyway, is expensive.

3 thoughts on “Are Old People Better Entrepreneurs? The Case for — and Against — Aging

  1. Well-done (and well-written), Rufus. I think you are just getting going at the end, when you talk about life-stage advantages. Other life-stage advantages I can think of — being able to work nights and weekends with gusto, being scared in a fight-or-flight way of getting beaten by the competition and having a certain arrogant certainty that you know better than anyone else out there.

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  2. Laurel — are you saying these are advantages of being younger? It seems to me the arrogant certainty that you know better than anyone else out there (a function of not knowing what you are up against) cuts both ways … it’s great for momentum building but not so good for decision making. On the energy front, I haven’t yet noticed a dissipation of energy, but that may be because I was such an unhealthy burger-and-fry-eating couch potato in my twenties 😉 — r

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