Is It Better to Start a Company at 25 or 45?

A VC An entry that Fred Wilson wrote back in May has been stuck in my mind. What’s the optimal age of being an entrepreneur?

It’s a bit of a contentious question. He started by asking innocently, “Do you know any 45 year old entrepreneurs?” Or rather, one of his friends asked him that.

Then Nick Denton of Valleywag picked it up and asked, “Is 30 too old to start a company?“, adding more fuel to the fire. Denton also selected some media darlings and compared the ages at which they founded their companies:

Valleywag Age Question Chart

Finally, Clay Shirky weighed in with what he referred to as the (Bayesian) Advantage of Youth:

I’m old enough to know a lot of things, just from life experience. I know that music comes from stores. I know that you have to try on pants before you buy them. I know that newspapers are where you get your political news and how you look for a job. …

In the last 15 years or so, I’ve had to unlearn every one of those things and a million others. This makes me a not-bad analyst, because I have to explain new technology to myself first — I’m too old to understand it natively. But it makes me a lousy entrepreneur.

So is 25 really a better age to start a company than 45?

Personally, I agree with Wilson’s conclusion: “I don’t totally buy that age matters. I think, as I said in my original post, that age is a mind set.”

Shirky has a point about inexperienced minds being able to make connections that more experienced minds wouldn’t see. Age can usually offer that, but not always. I know some really dumb young people.

One can also train one’s mind to think more creatively. IDEO is a famous example of a company that’s done just that. Then there’s also the Conceptual Innovator vs Experimental Innovator effect as well. So if you’re not 25 anymore, don’t lose heart!

What I believe to be more of a factor is not making mental connections and creativity — but risk. Creative thinking can strike at almost any age. But being able to take grand risks doesn’t; at least, not really.

In our society, the older we become, the more likely we’re in a situation where we have to care for a house & mortgage, an immediate & extended family, and a host of other responsibilities.

Compare that to a fresh college graduate with only him/herself and some school loans, and what do you see? A younger adult who’s realistically able to take greater risks.

That’s just an assumption, of course. But when Entrepreneur magazine recently published their “2007 Hot 500 Fastest-Growing Businesses in America” results, I thought: Ah!

What did they find was the average age of the entrepreneurs in their Hot 500? Forty-four! 44 years of age, for the average entrepreneur of one of America’s fastest growing businesses. Food for thought!

Their survey cover all sorts of businesses, tech and non-tech. Wilson, Denton, and Shirky, I believe, were thinking mainly about technology businesses. So it’s possible I’m comparing red apples to green apples here – same topic, but slightly different versions of that topic.

Still, I’m hopeful. It’s not the age that matters, it’s the mindset, the creativity, and the courage to take a big risk that matters.

Author: Mike Lee

An idealistic realist, humanistic technologist & constant student.