Influenced by the spectacular success of companies like Facebook, there has been a recent trend to imply that youth is the secret to success for startups, especially in the tech sector.
Two of the factors driving this are perceptions that Venture Capitalists think that older people don’t have the entrepreneurial drive of the young and a series of articles they spawned that promoted the idea. But there was an immediate backlash with perhaps the most public and high profile discussion taking place on Quora .
It is worth noting that to the Silicon Valley crowd, 35 was the age being highlighted as over the hill in entrepreneurial terms! Outside the tech industry the same attitudes also prevail, even if the age at which people are ‘too old’ is somewhat higher.
It turns out that there is research to show that not only do more older people start businesses but also that businesses started by older people are actually more successful on average. A study by the Kauffman Foundation that surveyed 652 US-born CEOs and heads of product development had some interesting results. Specifically:
- The average and median age of U.S.-born tech founders was thirty-nine when they started their companies. Twice as many were older than fifty as were younger than twenty-five.
- U.S.-born tech founders holding MBA degrees established companies more quickly (in thirteen years) than others. Those with PhDs typically waited twenty-one years to become tech entrepreneurs, and other master's degree holders took less time to start companies than did those with bachelor's degrees (14.7 years and 16.7 years respectively).
It’s not likely that any change in entrepreneurial ability occurs with age. It’s certainly not an issue of having ideas: for example, Benjamin Franklin invented bifocals at age 76. Whitney Johnson in the Harvard Business Review argues that entrepreneurs get better with age. Billionaire Carlos Slim (aged 73), perennially one of the richest people in the world argues that workers in developed economies are in their prime in their 60s. Vivek Wadhwa, well-known technologist and academic argues that ideas come from need, understanding of need comes with experience and experience comes with age . Other factors like aversion to risk clearly change with age but also with experience of economic issues. This American Express OPEN Survey looked at factors driving entrepreneurship across age groups and shows shifts over time in risk aversion as well as passion.
None of this information should really be a surprise. The reality is that some people have an entrepreneurial drive that is inherent. Some develop it over time and some are forced to it by necessity. And experience clearly helps success. An interesting study by the Founder Institute found that up to approximately the age of 40, businesses were more likely to succeed as their founders age increased, but that this improvement plateaued at 40.
Need more evidence? Here are nine-and-a-half entrepreneurs who started their businesses aged over 60 and have had great success.
Lynne Brooks (age at startup: 60)
Lynne Brooks won the Later-Life Story Contest at the Center for Productive Longevity with her story about quitting a job she didn’t like at age 59 and then getting laid off from a new job less than a year later. So she set up her own non-profit business, Big Apple Greeter, in 1992 as a ‘Welcome Visitor’ program for New York.
Ray Corkran (age at startup: 60)
Ray Corkran decided to enter the field of Elder Care partly because of an incident in his own family. But he did it at age 60 when he bought the Home Instead franchise. citing uncertainty over Medicare and Medicaid and baby boomers hitting 65 as reasons to be optimistic about the financials. And, worst case scenario, now he’s got a place to hang his hat in 20 years, if it comes to that.
Wally Blume (age at startup: 62)
Blume spent over 20 years in the dairy business, and then he spent a few years creating an ice cream business with some partners. It eventually had a big hit flavor and Blume decided to go it alone and mortgaged his house to buy out his partners and start Denali Flavors. The company has eventually had over $85 million in annual sales.
Mary Tennyson (age at startup: 63)
Mary Tennyson came up with her idea after her 92-year-old mother stumbled, fell and broke her hip. Her mother, (still active even when using a walker) had trouble carrying a bag. So Mary came up with the idea of a pocketbook that attaches to a walker. The successful StashAll was the result.
Gail Dunn (age at startup: 64)
Gail Dunn had years of experience working on cars when she decided to set up a business to help women and others struggling with dealing with the automobile industry. So at 64 she set up the Women’s Automotive Connection to provide automotive advice and service as well as lots of advice. They run automotive boot camps and more.
Harlan Sanders (age at startup: 65)
Perhaps better known by his formal address, Colonel Sanders is essentially a household name as the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken. After a military career as well as several failed previous ventures, he took his first social security check and founded the famous franchise which he eventually sold in 1964.
Lisa Gable (age at startup: 70)
At an age when many have retired, Lisa Gable got tired of an annoyance and invented a new kind of bra strap, the Strap-Mate which receives wide distribution and is still available today. She was still running the company at age 85!
Art Koff (age at startup: 72)
Art retired at 65, like many people, but couldn’t face not working and knew that lots of other older people were in the same boat. So he started a job board for older people called Retired Brains in 2003. Ten years later it is still going strong – and so is he.
Jeanne Dowell (age at startup: 80)
Jeanne Dowell spent over 40 years teaching yoga, including a stint under the US Olympic Committee. Then in 2008 she founded Green Buddha clothing, with her daughter, Dana Dowell Windatt, with the goal of inspiring Gratitude. The company exemplifies that by giving a percentage of its profits to charity.
That’s nine. But what about the half? This article started out with the tech industry and a strong propensity in that industry to look to youth. And there is a strong tech entrepreneur who started a VERY successful company aged over 60. But he did also start a hugely successful company prior to that when he was a ‘young’ 46 years-old.
David Duffield (age at startup: 46 or 64)
Duffield was one of the founders of Peoplesoft – a hugely successful enterprise software company that was eventually acquired by Oracle. After the acquisition he went on to found Workday – another enterprise software company that looks set to be just as successful – and he founded that at age 64.
It is clear that age is not a real factor in startup success. Good ideas, passion, commitment, energy and experience all are. Some advice to the VC community – pay a bit more attention to experience and a bit less to youth.