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Jimmy Wales To Silicon Valley: Grow Up And Get Over Your Age Bias


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Conventional wisdom says you need to be young to start a company.

Conventional wisdom is wrong:

One of the blessings and curses of youth is that you have no clue what's actually reasonable. Youth can therefore deliver real innovation because a young entrepreneur may not appreciate just how difficult it is to develop a new technology or start a new company. And so she plows ahead, succeeds and hires more people like her.

Sometimes it works that way. But as Duke professor and Stanford fellow Vivek Wadhwa opines, "It is the role of the old to implement [ideas that a young entrepreneur may hatch]. After all, great ideas by themselves don't lead to breakthrough technologies or successful companies. Ideas are a dime a dozen." Lest we think this is just one old codger justifying his old age from a university desk, it's useful to hear what successful tech entrepreneurs think.

Like Jimmy Wales.

Asked what people in Silicon Valley should do once they're 35 and officially "over the hill," Wales responded:

I turned 35 the year I founded Wikipedia.  38 the year I founded Wikia (now ranked #30, quantcast).

The premise of the question is wrong. A better question might be: How can we in the tech community make sure that unusual success at a very early age is not mistakenly thought to be the norm?

"Unusual"? "Mistakenly"? Well, yes. 

According to data compiled by Wadhwa, the average age of a successful entrepreneur in high-growth industries such as computers, health care, and aerospace is 40. Twice as many successful entrepreneurs are over 50 as under 25. A whopping 75% have more than six years of industry experience and 50% have more than 10 years when they create their startup. 

And according to data from the Kauffman Foundation, the highest rate of entrepreneurship in America has shifted to the 55–64 age group, with people over 55 almost twice as likely to found successful companies than those between 20 and 34. Indeed, Kauffman highlights that the 20-34 age bracket has the lowest rate of entrepreneurial activity and success.

Hardly a youthquake. 

Indeed, one of the benefits of age is that you actually have lived long enough to appreciate serious problems, and have an idea of how to fix them. Some of what Silicon Valley's youthful entrepreneurs create tends to be somewhat silly, solving problems that only a 20-something person with no kids or other encumbrances could have. ("How DO I get that beer bong delivered in minutes, not days???").

For every Zuckerberg at Facebook, there are dozens of old codgers starting other companies. Like Mark Pincus, 41 when he started Zynga. Or Reid Hoffman, who was 36 when he founded LinkedIn. Or... the list goes on: Marc Benioff (35), Salesforce; Robert Noyce (41), Intel; Robin Chase (42), Zipcar; Irwin Jacobs (52) and Andrew Viterbi (50), Qualcomm; Craig Newmark (42), Craigslist; etc.

Or even Michael Arrington, who famously argued that entrepreneurs peak at 25, didn't start Techcrunch until he was 35.

Well said.

Clicking on the Quora link above showed me one of my old answers. Haha:

A few years ago, a very rich businessman decides to take a vacation to a small tropical island in the South Pacific. He has worked hard all his life and has decided that now is the time to enjoy the fruits of his labor. He is excited about visiting the island because he’s heard that there is incredible fishing there. He loved fishing as a young boy, but hasn’t gone in years because he has been so busy working to save for his retirement.

So on the first day, he has his breakfast and heads to the beach. It’s around 9:30 am. There he spots a fisherman coming in with a large bucket full of fish! “How long did you fish for?" he asks.

The fisherman looks at the businessman with a wide grin across his face and explains that he fishes for about three hours every day. The businessman then asks him why he returned so quickly. He’s worried that all the fish are gone.

“Don’t worry", says the fisherman, “There’s still plenty of fish out there."

Dumbfounded, the businessman asks the fisherman why he didn’t continue catching more fish. The fisherman patiently explains that what he caught is all he needs.

“I’ll spend the rest of the day playing with my family, talking with my friends and maybe drinking a little wine. After that I’ll relax on the beach."

Now the rich businessman figures he needs to teach this peasant fisherman a thing or two. So he explains to him that he should stay out all day and catch more fish. Then he could save up the extra money he makes and buy and even bigger boat to catch even more fish. The he could keep reinvesting his profits in even more boats and hire many other fisherman to work for him. If he works really hard, in 20 or 30 years he’ll be a very rich man indeed.

The businessman feels pleased that he’s helped teach this simple fellow how to become rich. Then the fisherman looks at the businessman with a puzzled look on his face and asks what he’ll do after he becomes very rich. The businessman responds quickly without missing a beat, “You can spend time with your family, talk with your friends, and maybe drink a little wine. Or you could just relax on the beach."

Amen.

That's a beautiful story. 

I thought so, too, Dawn.

That post linked to this other great story: 

Two bulls are standing at the top of a hill overlooking a pasture.

One is an old-timer and the other is young.

In the pasture are dozens of attractive cows, milling about and eating the tender grass beneath their hooves.

The young bull says to the old bull, "Let's run down the hill and get us a cow!!"

The old bull calmly looks at the young one and replies,

"Let's WALK down the hill and get them all."

Inspired by: Adam Rifkin's answer to Personal Finance: What is "fuck-you money"?  

has this not already been disproved? Most companies are started by 30-40 year olds...not 20. right?

People of all experience levels can add value as entrepreneurs. But, on average, they have different contributions to make.

Young people make excellent entrepreneurs for smaller ideas, especially for companies making consumer software targeting younger users. Kids right out of college are attracted to the romance of the successful young entrepreneur story -- it's just a cultural value that they have. And in a job market that's increasingly tough on entry level workers I think it can make a lot of sense for kids to start their own companies rather than joust each other for a small number of desirable entry level jobs. Even though the chance of their startup having a liquid event may be small, they have a 100% chance of gaining valuable skills and experience.

Paul Graham is playing a numbers game. YC takes a small army of promising kids, gives each one a little money, and then turns them loose and lets nature kill the weak. It's a classic low-parental investment r-selection strategy, which can perform better in an unstable or unpredictable environment. YC can afford to create a lot of small companies because the investment in any particular one is low, and each company reaches "maturity" more quickly because the ideas they work on tend to be very small and constrained.

Investing in older, more experienced entrepreneurs working on real problems (as opposed to a node.js helicopter delivering burritos to a college dorm problem) is more of a K-strategy, which requires a higher parental investment in offspring because they need more time to reach maturity, though these companies may each have a higher individual chance of success given sufficient resources. VCs seem to like these "big idea" companies once they're relatively mature, but don't really seem to want to invest their time in the less developed ones.

So long as funders are into this "spray and pray" numbers game fad, it seems that natural selection will favor younger entrepreneurs and their smaller ideas which can reach maturity more quickly. Maybe more experienced founders would be wise to initially optimize their pitches for the YC r-selection strategy, and market themselves in terms of the bigger version of their idea only once they've developed enough to attract momentum investors.

First of all, a node.js helicopter delivering burritos sounds AWESOME.

Second, you're right that Paul Graham's model requires that he gets a lot of people to buy into YC, and then the law of large numbers says that some of them will be winners. The winners take all.

Which means this: OF COURSE the YCombinators are going to make young people think that young people have advantages in the startup game. That's how they find people naive enough to give YC so much equity so that when some of those startups DO become successful, YC makes a lot of money.

So I'm agreeing with you.

I would expand this beyond valuing age of founders at start up companies.  

Many of the companies founded (by some of the younger generation) in the Valley have been finding that promoting 20 somethings into management positions without a lot of work experience is backfiring.

Some start up companies have had a tendency to give promotions to justify their employees salaries, but often don't think through if the person has the right qualifications to be a good manager.  

Good managers need to be able to be good mentors, have communication and emotional IQ skills, see the big picture and understand how all (the often competing) needs of different groups within a company should be prioritized.    These qualities tend to come with work experience in broad areas and wisdom acquired through life experience.  

Carrol, well said, and you know I agree with you!

Couple possible add-on points:

1. as ubiquity of technology rapidly compresses cycle times and enables lower costs of innovation prototypes to market, insights can easily be expressed by any users comfortable with jumping into new environments without fear--mobile apps and online services are two example industries that have lowered costs of entry to new entrants and are affordable enough for young entrepreneurs to muck around in on the margins while still in high school or college.  Probably also why we don't read about any young entrepreneurs with start-up successes in industries with higher costs of entry, like automobile companies, or fields where experience and heritage matters, like surgical tools and medical implants, military weaponry and aerospace technologies.

2. as Rifkin notes above, by Vivek Wadwha and Jimmy Wales, execution is key.  This is more true than many of us ever learn by inferred experience or from stories of other people's success: first time entrepreneurs don't often have execution skills, but some at least know they need to learn or acquire them as they go; young entrepreneurs don't even know what they don't know after they have a good idea; and ego maniacs never even acknowledge the high quality execution of others' work that made their idea possible and real.  

That good execution has intrinsic value to entrepreneurship and ideas are simply a multiplier is nicely characterized by Derek Sivers:

normalized-tmp-52470a0a63a53

Of course in certain markets and at certain times any idea can find early purchase by irrational exuberance well before any execution and skew the above chart.  But I'd argue that such recent experiences are outlier exceptions more than an emerging rule, just like successful entrepreneurship being driven increasingly by the young...maybe true only in certain conditions and at certain times.

As PJ O'Rourke wrote "Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence, and a Bad Haircut" all day, every day.

  

That Derek Sivers chart is brilliant, Rob.

And I will bet on Guile and Cunning over Youth any day of the week.

This part has really stuck with me:

According to data compiled by Wadhwa, the average age of a successful entrepreneur in high-growth industries such as computers, health care, and aerospace is 40. Twice as many successful entrepreneurs are over 50 as under 25. A whopping 75% have more than six years of industry experience and 50% have more than 10 years when they create their startup. 

And according to data from the Kauffman Foundationthe highest rate of entrepreneurship in America has shifted to the 55–64 age group, with people over 55 almost twice as likely to found successful companies than those between 20 and 34. Indeed, Kauffman highlights that the 20-34 age bracket has the lowest rate of entrepreneurial activity and success.

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