A couple of days ago, Dean Owen posted on LinkedIn on the subject of the optimum age for entrepreneurship. Like Dean, I am fast approaching my 50’s now and am often blown away by what I see young people doing. I am impressed, but, unlike Dean, rarely surprised.
Greatness has been coming from youth throughout human history. Twenty-three hundred years ago one of the earliest folks to be referred to as great ascended to the throne of Macedon at only 20 years old. Whether Alexander was deserving the moniker “Great” is sometimes debated, but there is no doubt that he was an innovative and risk-taking leader, who by the way, had actually ruled as young as perhaps 16 as “acting-king” while his father was away conducting war.
Much more recently, one of our most famous founding fathers had actually been retired for a couple decades by the time of the revolution, having sold his business at barely 40 years old. Benjamin Franklin struck out on his own as a printer at the ripe old age of 17, but had run his brother’s business during the elder’s imprisonment several years earlier than that.
Gates, Dell, and Zuckerberg aside, the man who still holds more patents than anyone else and who founded the mega-company GE, Thomas Edison, started his first business (the Grand Trunk Herald) at 15. And yes he was selling fruit & newspapers even earlier than that. So clearly it isn’t unusual for America’s greatest entrepreneurs to start young.
It was Franklin who famously said that experience is the best teacher, but a fool learns from no other. If the young are studious, they can learn from the experience of others. Yes, entrepreneurship is hard, and this works in the favor of the young. They have energy and a high risk tolerance (substantially because they have little to lose) and they don’t know they can’t do it.
Since the 1950’s the youth culture has been strengthening in this country and consumerism is growing. These factors too are working in the favor of young entrepreneurs. But before we get carried away assuming that the young are the only ones that can do something new, we should remember that the same Ben Franklin that launched his printing business in his teens invented bifocals when he was 76. Far more recently, David Duffield became a founder of Peoplesoft in his mid-forties and after that had sold to Oracle he founded another enterprise software company (Workday) in his mid-sixties. And who can forget Colonel Sanders?
I don’t think that age should get as much attention as it does. Young, old, or “middle aged”, entrepreneurship can be done successfully. Individual temperament not age is the intangible, but resources matter more (whether it is human or capital). And of course nothing matters more than the product.