I’ve run across many articles discussing this question over the years. Some of them are software or tech startup specific, while others take on the topic of founding any kind of startup company generally. I think it’s an interesting topic, one that I’ve thought about a lot as I’ve been a startup guy in one form or another throughout much of my career. As a result, I’ve formed a fairly strong opinion on the question of the best age for a tech startup founder. I’m writing this from the perspective of founding a TECH startup specifically, but much of the discussion truly applies to any type of startup. Read on to get a sense of some research and opinion pieces that are out there, as well as my personal conclusions:
It’s best to found a tech startup in your 20s
This is a commonly held belief about tech entrepreneurs today, that they’re usually very young (at least the really successful ones!). Mark Zuckerberg famously said that “young people are just smarter. PayPal founder Peter Thiel is well known for handing out $100,000 fellowships to bright entrepreneurs—with the condition that they are under 23. And there have been many other articles written about VCs who will only invest in entrepreneurs under the age of 30.
It’s my feeling that much of this comes from the tech and popular press infatuation with entrepreneurs who struck gold at a very early age, such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. It makes a great story – which is what most writers are looking for, right? But I think the preponderance of these stories in the press skews popular perception of what tech entrepreneurship generally looks like. Henry Kanapi wrote about this phenomenon in his article entitled “The Best Age to Start a Business — Spoiler: It’s Not Your 20s“.
Here’s my personal view of the most important pros and cons to consider about founding a tech startup in your 20s, or backing such a company financially:
- This is generally the optimal period for being most unencumbered by other responsibilities (family, mortgage, etc), allowing near full focus on the startup
- Should be the time in your life of peak physical ability and highest energy
- In the tech world specifically, this can also be at or near your peak of technical competence (up-to-date on newest development tools, etc) because technology changes so quickly. In the software and hardware business, what you learned in school will often be quite obsolete later in your career
- You may be less likely to see serious obstacles as fatal; this is the blessing (and sometimes the curse) of being young and naive
- This is also the point in your life with the least real-world experience – unfortunately a critical deficiency in many cases
- In your 20s you almost certainly have the least amount of relevant contacts from a business perspective, such as funding sources and potential co-founders/employees/strategic partners. Your network is generally VERY important to successful company formation and performance
It’s best to be a tech startup founder in your 30s
Kanapi’s article referenced above makes the argument that the optimal time to start a successful business is your mid-thirties. Here is a quick summary of his arguments:
- More than half of businesses with lasting power were founded by entrepreneurs in their 30s
- A Kauffman study shows that many business owners have postgraduate degrees, which are common by the time folks reach their 30s
- The 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor reported that people are likely to have the strongest network of other entrepreneurs starting at the age of 35
- Overall studies suggest that entrepreneurs accumulate significant industry experience over time before they feel confident about their skills to start a business, which is usually in their mid-thirties
- Aspiring entrepreneurs also need funding to turn their business ideas into reality. According to the Census Bureau, 75 percent of business owners in the country relied on personal savings, credit and personal assets to fund their business. The mid-thirties is a point when they have significant disposable income
- Overall opportunities appear to be the strongest in your mid-thirties. You are more likely to be connected with other business owners who can serve as role models and provide more business opportunities
- His analysis showed that the above listed factors often coalesce together in the mid-thirties. The Founder Institute’s Adeo Rossi supports this thesis: “Older age has shown in the data to correlate with more successful entrepreneurs up to the age of 40, after which it has limited or no impact.”
Here’s my personal analysis on the pros and cons of being a tech startup founder in your 30s:
- Still young and energetic
- Maybe not yet “fully-encumbered” by external life
- Should still up to date technically
- Have a reasonable amount of experience
- Have made some good business contacts
- Still not as experienced as you will be going forward
- May be in management, but likely haven’t held a P&L or other highly responsible position yet
- Have more contacts, but there will be many more yet to make in your career going forward
Startup founders in the technology business are best in their 40s
Many of the opinion articles you’ll find on the topic of founder’s ages are based upon research by Pierre Azoulay, Benjamin F. Jones, J. Daniel Kim and Javier Miranda. They studied administrative data from the Census Bureau’s Longitudinal Business Database, in conjunction with Schedule K-1 business owners data from the Internal Revenue Service. They believed that the combination of this data allowed for the first time to do a deep dive into the actual statistics of entrepreneurship, including the age question that we’re examining in this article.
A couple of the researcher’s key findings: 1) the average age of entrepreneurs who’ve started companies and gone on to hire at least one employee is 42 years old and 2) those new ventures with the highest growth had an average founder age of 45. So there’s a pretty good research-supported thesis to say that your 40s may be the optimal startup founder age.
My view on tech entrepreneurship pros and cons in your 40s:
- This age may be the “sweet spot” in your career where you’ve got a “little bit of everything” going for you
- Hopefully still relatively up to date technically, if you’ve worked at it
- May have a reasonable amount of experience, including in upper management
- By now should have a strong network of good business contacts
- At this point you may have a lot of responsibility external to your career, making a lot more demands on your time which deflects you from the all-encompassing startup
- You’re starting to think about how your retirement will look, even though it’s still a ways off. This could lead you to begin to think more conservatively from a financial risk-taking perspective
Your 50s is the best time to be a tech startup founder
The same study by the 4 researchers referenced above found that ” a 50-year-old entrepreneur is almost twice as likely to start an extremely successful company as a 30-year-old”.
You will also find that the great majority of CEOs running high profile public companies -a very demanding job requiring both stamina and expertise – tend to be in their 50s. A 2019 report from the executive-staffing firm Crist Kolder Associates showed that CEOs’ average age at the time of hiring for Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies was 58 years old. If you are fit and able enough to run a Fortune 500 company, you should also be well suited to the demands of starting up a company, imo.
Here’s my own personal pros and cons for 50s decade:
- External life may actually be simpler; you may now be an empty-nester, mortgage is paid off or almost so, etc.
- Business experience and breadth of contacts should be at an all-time high
- If you are going to have significant management experience, it almost certainly has happened by now
- Self-confidence in your business abilities are at an all time high
- Should still be in decent shape physically if it’s been a focus
- The clock is ticking on saving for retirement, making big risks feel unwise to some people
- You may have elderly parents and other relatives to worry about and need to take care of
- May NOT be in great shape physically, depending upon how well you’ve taken care of yourself
Founding a tech startup business works best in your 60’s
I won’t belabor this one too much, because you will have a hard time finding folks that think the decade of your 60s is generally the best time to become a tech startup founder. But I must say, I’m not sure that I would agree. Personally, I recently worked for several years with a startup tech company whose founders were in their LATE sixties when they started it. And the level of persistence and energy devoted were not a detriment to the effort. In addition, that in-depth research study conducted by Azoulay, Jones, Kim and Miranda surprisingly found the following:
A 60-year-old startup founder is 3 times as likely to found a successful startup as a 30-year-old startup founder–and is 1.7 times as likely to found a startup that winds up in the top 0.1 percent of all companies.
So what’s REALLY the best age to start a tech company?
I actually find all of the arguments outlined above and drawn from recent research and well written opinion pieces to be pretty compelling. But I’m also reminded of the phrase made popular by Mark Twain, although who said it first isn’t known: ” There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”.
In my humble opinion, anyone that states that “the best time to start a (tech) company is when your age is “XYZ” is unintentionally creating a false choice.
Why do I say that?
First of all, I believe that the most important entrepreneurial attributes are almost completely independent of age; they can be found in people of any age group. Secondly, there are certainly patterns of life circumstances which when sorted by age group “likelihood of occuring” could lead you to believe that “XYZ is the right age for a startup founder”. But in reality everyone’s life is different. The supporting conditions that ALLOW and ENABLE an individual to conduct the successful startup of a tech company really do vary by individual as much as any grouping, age or otherwise.
So you can successfully found a tech company at any time in your life, if you have the right personal characteristics and the supporting circumstances line up for YOU. The reality is that there are pros and cons to startups for any age group, and no individual person will likely have ALL of the desirable characteristics and environmental conditions to enable success, at any age. Having a preponderance of them certainly helps, and good luck never hurts either! Some people don’t like to admit that luck is involved, but sometimes that’s the only differentiator to be seen between successful and failed startups.
Essential criteria for suitability to be a tech startup founder
I’ve written about the topic of which attributes are necessary to become a successful tech startup founder a number of times, notably in Key Qualities of a Successful Software Startup CEO. I think there is really a long list of desirable attributes, and as I said earlier, no one has them all. I’ll let you read my other articles if you have a keen interest in this topic, but below is a short list of the most basic personal attributes that I believe are required to enhance the always long odds of startup success:
Drive to succeed – I find very few startup founders without this personal characteristic
Self-belief – The startup road is far too hard for someone with substantial self-doubt
Passion about the mission – This is usually passion about the technology or the problem being solved, but it can be about anything. The important thing is that a tech startup founders finds his or her passion from somewhere, to sustain and keep them moving forward in the dark times.
Financial wherewithal to go the distance – Desire to start up as a company isn’t enough. You need to be able to feed yourself and the company along the way as well, whether that means you have to ability to exist on Ramen noodles for two years or your family is independently wealthy.
Desire/need to succeed trumps ego – This is a big one. If you’ve started a company with the driving motivation to be the boss or feel important, you’re more likely to fail. Everyone has an ego, but startups are so hard that it’s important that you can put the needs of the company above your own.
So there’s my contribution to the often debated “What the best age to startup up a company?” topic. You may not have liked my answer – it may feel like cheating – but I feel strongly that it’s the right answer. The question itself leads one down the wrong path, imo. What’s your take? Do I have it all WRONG? Is it really is best to start a company when you’re XYZ years old? Post your opinion and any relevant experiences in the comment field below.
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