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Does Entrepreneurship Have An Ageism Problem?

Quick—picture a successful tech entrepreneur. In your mind’s eye, how old are they?

Maybe you instinctively default to an image of someone in their twenties—young, digitally native, ready to shake things up. You’re not alone. No less an authority than Paul Graham, the founder of Y Combinator, has noted that, “The cutoff in investors’ heads is 32 … After 32, they start to be a little skeptical.”

Turns out, this is dead wrong. Surprising (some would say shocking) preliminary research shared last year suggests that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who have a successful exit have an average founding age of 47. And this pattern extends well beyond the world of tech. The average entrepreneur is a ripe old 39 when starting a company, according to the Kaufman Foundation. Overall, their research shows mid-career entrepreneurs are five times more likely to still be in business five years later than those starting a business out of college.

To me, this is an important wake up call. Even though I’m in my 40s myself, I still often think of entrepreneurship as a young person’s game. In fact, throughout my career I’ve been a fierce advocate of clearing away hurdles for youth entrepreneurs. I founded a charity called League of Innovators expressly to build entrepreneurial acumen for 15 to 25 year olds.

 To be clear, there are plenty of reasons why young entrepreneurs need a boost—from lack of resources to challenges finding a support network. But, as these stats make abundantly clear, innovation and entrepreneurship are by no means the exclusive domain of the young. Considering the enormous potential that lies in older entrepreneurs, a logical question arises: Why aren’t we doing more to encourage their efforts? Likewise, how can companies harness this energy and experience?

Getting better with age

Among my own colleagues, it’s the serial entrepreneurs—those who have been around the block more than once—who are most successful. Famous examples aren’t hard to find either. Reid Hoffman, the consummate Silicon Valley insider, worked at Apple and Fujitsu before founding LinkedIn at age 36. Chip Wilson started lululemon at 42, after taking his first yoga class. Bernie Marcus co-founded Home Depot at 50, in the wake of being let go from the now defunct Handy Dan Home Improvement Centers. And Silicon Valley’s founding father, Robert Noyce, didn’t start Intel until 41, after a tenure at Shockley Semiconductor and Fairchild Semiconductor.

Yes, young people—the college-aged Zuckerbergs and Gates and Pages and Brins—have a knack for bringing radical new ideas to the table. But when you stop and think about it, entrepreneurship, like any trade, is something you learn by doing. And, here, older entrepreneurs are at a distinct advantage. I was in my 30s when I started Hootsuite. It literally took a lifetime of trial and error—at everything from running a pizza restaurant to building web apps—to develop the skill set needed to succeed. More recently, I brought a $25 standing desk to market and realized how much entrepreneurship is like riding a bike—a kind of muscle memory that deepens with practice.

At the same time, late-career entrepreneurs benefit from the kind of deep domain expertise that younger counterparts lack. The more intimately an entrepreneur knows their particular industry, after all, the better positioned they are for success. A newly published study of hundreds of companies confirmed just this: the startups most likely to succeed have technically savvy founders who know their space inside and out. A classic example is Garmin, maker of the ubiquitous GPS devices. The company was started in 1989 by two career aerospace contractors (in their 40s and 50s, at the time) who pooled their technical know-how to turn military-grade technology into consumer tools. Today the company is worth more than $10 billion.

Supporting older entrepreneurs

So how can we take off entrepreneurship’s youth blinders? And how can we do a better job tapping the talents of older innovators? This is a complex question, especially in the youth-oriented tech world, without easy fixes, But to me, intrapreneurship is a big part of the answer. At root, this means nurturing entrepreneurs inside your company. By giving highly motivated folks the space and resources to take risks and solve big problems, without fear of failure, we can harness the talent of older entrepreneurs already on the payroll.

Google, for example, famously pioneered the “20% time” concept—giving engineers one day a week to pursue passion projects. Intel has been investing in the ideas of its own employees since 1998, when it established an in-house “new business initiative.” Hackathons—essentially, intense programming or product-building marathons—are another powerful intrapreneurship vehicle. Inside Hootsuite, cross-departmental teams partner up once a year for a few weeks to bring a new product to life. It’s hard to overstate how this energizes the company and its intrapreneurs, while also yielding new, game-changing features. Concepts that emerged last year ranged from AI tools that predict the performance of a Tweet to a unique social media scorecard for users.

On a deeper level, it’s incumbent on companies to enable a real culture of innovation. This sounds like a no-brainer. But the reality is that many companies actively discourage innovation: adherence to process is paramount and new ideas are seen as a threat to efficiency. Prioritizing innovation means getting out of the way and allowing employees to act like entrepreneurs—solving real problems for end users.

And for mid-career entrepreneurs who truly want to strike out on their own? In contrast to younger counterparts, older entrepreneurs are more likely to have both the expertise and the financial resources to get off the ground. But success or failure often comes down to having access to the right support network—trusted mentors and entrepreneurial peers who can share advice from the front lines. Here, it could be worth reimagining the notion of business incubators altogether, as suggested by Carl Schramm recently in the Wall Street Journal. These don’t have to cater just to the straight-out-of-college, living-on-ramen-noodles crowd. Broadening the scope of incubators to appeal to and support older professionals could go a long way toward activating this overlooked entrepreneurial resource.

Zooming out, the reality is that entrepreneurship is never easy, regardless of what age you’re at. Young entrepreneurs just starting out absolutely need support. But it’s critical to recognize the passions, contributions and challenges of older entrepreneurs, as well. Bringing an idea to life—creating something from nothing—is hard, imprecise, soul-testing, extremely important and gloriously rewarding. The more we can empower everyone to pursue their entrepreneurial passions, the stronger our economy, our companies and even our society will ultimately be.
Source: Ryan Holmes
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