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Research: The Average Age of a Successful Startup Founder Is 45 (hbr.org)
576 points by BerislavLopac 7 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 168 comments

I have been an entrepreneur for 17 years and am now “middle aged”. In my early years, I made many, many mistakes that could probably be pegged to youthful hubris. I also had no idea how to run a real business because I had scant experience even working for one let alone crafting anything approaching a “go to market plan”.

If I were to start a new company today, I would probably lack the carefree creativity of a 23-year-old, not to mention the energy to work crazy hours. But everything about execution would be better, and as it happens, assuming you have a decent idea at the right time, execution is everything.

I'm in my late 30s now, after two decades as an entrepreneur. My brain was quicker at 21, memory was slightly stronger (slightly faster, easier recall), and I had greater endurance at working productively in very long stretches. And despite that, due to learning how to work more effectively, how to be far more productive with my use of time, understanding what mistakes to avoid, I'm a dramatically better entrepreneur across the board. My patience has improved quite a bit, and my understanding of how to build for simplicity, reducing things down to only what they need to be, is leaps beyond what it was in my 20s. The single most important improvement I've seen, is building up a belligerent ruthlessness when it comes to complexity and general bloat. My 21 year old self just loved to build unnecessary, complex shit.

I met with a non-technical cofounder a few months ago who is in his early 20s. He had a great idea for a product and was looking for a technical co-founder (he also had an investor who already put up some money and he was already deeply involved in the sales channel and had two customers already sold). I have no doubt this product would very successful. Probably not a unicorn, but could make a few people quite wealthy.

But, from our two hour meeting I could tell that he wanted to make all of those same mistakes I now know not to make.

Your point about building complex shit is exactly his main problem, and I problem I suffered from at that age too. Yes, it might be complex one day if that's what the market needs, but simple can be so much more and it's especially the right move for an MVP.

To some degree, I don't blame him and he doesn't know me well enough to trust me to guide him away from those pitfalls, but man I wish he had a little more humility -- we'd be a couple months away from an MVP at this point.

“Non-technical cofounder in early 20s” sounds like a massive red flag to me. Ideas are cheap, execution is what matters

This is common sentiment but I disagree. As a tech person, I’d much rather partner with a non-tech person already selling and raising funds. Sounds like a winning combo but the parent just didn’t want to go on the path this specific person was heading down.

I've always been better with an "idea man" to work with. I'd be careful though with an inexperienced non-technical cofounder, as they tend to not understand the intricacies of implementation. Setbacks will happen, and I have seen non-technical cofounders place a ton of blame on the technical ones when things go wrong. A rift in the relationship could mean the end of the business.

To be fair, "non technical co-founder" could mean anything from GP's pretty great sounding example to "I have an idea for the next Facebook, if you build it for free I'll give you 10%".

I don't see the disagreement with your parent. He has reservations about the age and thus the experience of the person, not if they are already actively raising money and doing sales. You can do these at 30+ as well.

Execution is not just technical. Sales, marketing, fundraising, recruiting, hiring, design/product, media, strategy, etc...

But if you have no technical innovation or your innovation is trivial to clone, then you don't have a startup.

Many startups fail because they're actually not innovative. Nobody needs another database from a tiny company that is just tiny bit better. No matter how good rest of your offering is, bigger does often mean better.

Other fail due to entanglements, especially hardware ones. Their supply chain fails and that's that. No amount of media will help and you cannot afford to hedge this kind of risk.

Execution is what matters. Execution has nothing to do with technical skills however.

If you're already bringing the technical skills, you probably want to partner with someone that has the skills you lack. In particular you'd probably want business development skills, but you'd also want them to be able to jump in and get involved with designs/mockups so you can focus on the technical side.

I agree; however, after the MVP is built the execution continues... and a hard part of that phase in the execution is actually getting customers and raising money and he had already done both. So, he had real value beyond the idea. I think we can all agree that some ideas are better than others, and the idea was on the better side of that spectrum too.

He already had investor monies and two customers.

> ...non-technical cofounder [...] had a great idea for a product and was looking for a technical co-founder

As an aside, maybe I just don't 'get it' or maybe I've just met bad examples but this scenario always reads to me like "guy wants someone to do the work for him so he can be the boss".

Good ideas are cheap. Execution is the hard bit.

"Execution" also includes selling the product and securing funding. A good non-technical co-founder handles all of this side of things so the technical guy can get on and write the code.

Without actual code you will fail after round 1. Even the best salesman can weasel for funding only for so long.

If the product is not innovative or much better than competitors, you will fail in a later round and best exit you can hope for is an acquihire.

This is why many startups fail, their ideas are meh and/or the execution does not follow.

I think it's more toward bad examples, which is most of the examples that I come across so I can see why you think that. But, this guy was good at sales, had an investor with money already in, had two customers sold on the platform, was already doing business in the space. He was a good example of a non-technical cofounder, he wasn't just saying he would do all the sales/marketing/finance like all non-technical co-founders always say they'll do, he was actually doing all of it already. His only problem was humility.

It seems you are assuming that execution is done mostly by technical co-founders. I would argue that many crucial aspects of what we categorise as "execution" are non-technical business aspects.

Are they now? What kind of aspects are you talking about?

Hiring? Ensuring funding? How long can those two last without a truly superior product?

In my opinion business factors like hiring and ensuring funding are way more important than having a superior product. Betamax was technically superior compared to VHS, Amiga OS was a better product than DOS, etc. etc.

Other non-technical factors, besides the ones you mentioned, are related to company culture, sales, HR and talent retention. Just a few examples that I can think of right now, there are many more of course.

While there are a ton of snake oil salesmen/women out there, there actually are people who are non-technical bringing other real skills to the table. Sometimes it's general business, sometimes sales, sometimes they really do have a deep domain understanding etc. So it's not always them looking to be the boss, but rather that they recognize a skills/knowledge gap and are trying to fill it.

It's all about the focus.

In the end, the system that a company is built from will be complex.

Execution is about knowing which parts of the system should be complex and which parts should be simple.

>I'm in my late 30s now, after two decades as an entrepreneur. My brain was quicker at 21, memory was slightly stronger (slightly faster, easier recall), and I had greater endurance at working productively in very long stretches.

I'm in my mid 30s. If my brain was quicker and my memory better when I was 21, it's certainly not enough of an effect to be noticeable. This corresponds to what more current studies say about when cognitive decline tends to become perceptible.

What has changed, is the demands on my time. Also, as you said, endurance. I can't sit at a computer for hours without stretching or something will start hurting.

>My 21 year old self just loved to build unnecessary, complex shit

When time and energy feel infinite, the perceived cost of wasting either feels low; the real cost remains the same.

> the real cost remains the same.

The cost is actually much higher when you’re younger because of the time-value of money. It just doesn’t feel that way because the immediate consequences are lower.

I however do feel that the best way to learn that you're wasting time with overly-complex solutions is to suffer the consequences for it, and the earlier you suffer them the better. So, I would say that wasting time (as long as it doesn't take long for you to realize you're the one who f'ed it up) when you're young has a high benefit, too. You learned it the hard way.

I don't think the poster was just talking about money, although there may also be a time-value factor for other things (health, neural plasticity, etc).

This captures the essence of mid 20s vs. 40 year old entrepreneur.

> My brain was quicker at 21, memory was slightly stronger (slightly faster, easier recall), and I had greater endurance at working productively in very long stretches.

> I'm a dramatically better entrepreneur across the board. My patience has improved quite a bit, and my understanding of how to build for simplicity, reducing things down to only what they need to be, is leaps beyond what it was in my 20s.

> The single most important improvement I've seen, is building up a belligerent ruthlessness when it comes to complexity and general bloat. My 21 year old self just loved to build unnecessary, complex shit.

Perhaps, but I would be careful to apply 'older execute better' as a general explanation for the study result.

It's possible but selection bias could also be playing a huge role here.

I can't imagine a more risky period to step out of a 'career' and become a founder than 45. So it's possible people making the leap at this age are a lot more certain about their chances of success before taking the plunge than younger (and much older) people who have less to lose.

> I can't imagine a more risky period to step out of a 'career' and become a founder than 45.

Why? What makes age 45 more risky than 40 or 50, or 35 or 60? Or are you just comparing "age bracket where people probably have a family" vs. "people probably too young to have a family"?

That, and, as you get older you need your money to be more stable (reducing returns over the long term)

Oh yes that's true. My Aussie Super (retirement scheme) was started in my 30s (that's when I migrated down under) and now I need to pay voluntary contributions besides the standard 9.5% or I won't get a decent retirement.

I'm not sure that becoming a founder at 45 is likely to be successful. It is surely because successful founders have many failures under their belt that the average successful founder is 45. This implies that stepping out at 45 is not the way to be successful.

To regain youthful energy/creativity, you could try increasing testosterone. Even topical pregnenolone + DHEA (5 mg : 5 mg) along with a multivitamin + D & K + chelated/TRAACS magnesium supplement may be effective. Given your age, there are also anti-aging benefits. Iodine protocol. MSM lotion.

Would execution ability have been sufficiently improved by reading/observing more? What makes you now better at executing?

Or you could skip the dubious body hacker drug BS and just be more physically active.

That's also great, but it doesn't have as strong an effect.

I agree. Make time for the gym. Eat less crap food, and get consistent sleep.

Is this safe? Any guides?

Your testicles will shrink, and your body will stop naturally producing testosterone over time as you continue with the testosterone injections - basically, once you start it has to be for life! Be careful doing this.

I wasn't necessarily suggesting TRT.

What were you suggesting? Other than topical (still stops natural growth), there's no way to significantly boost T.

I always find it interesting when these sorts of threads are posted. I for one look at them as am I too old to be starting my own company or should I chill out because I still have time.

Fundamentally I think there's limited value in drawing lessons from these stories because you're probably your own best judge of whether you should quit your job or not. Your risk tolerance lowers as you get older but your skills will improve so it's up to you to decide what's the sweet spot. That said there is an age threshold where you'll be treated like an old man at a big company so may as well demonstrate your expertise on your own company before that happens.

Speaking as someone who is 50, I would say you have 2 choices: take your risks early so you have time to recover from them before you retire, or take a very low risk approach to your early career and save a lot of money so that you can afford to take risks later in your career.

3) work for big corp, have idea that can't be done small, and successfully pitch internally. Move vertically internally. Not as sexy, but much more likely to succeed if your goal is the idea.

Interesting idea. Having worked in a big company before, though, I definitely could not do this! The politics would kill me before I even got close. I wonder if that means that I couldn't do a startup either...

Only works if your company sees you as a potential partner.

Which is why one of the strongest criteria I have now with a company, is whether or not they would consider doing a joint deal.

You are far more likely to be treated as a peon, or someone to rob, (or beat down with lawsuits) in todays corporate climate. Most of the executive staff, is straight up sociopathic bootlickers.

I cannot tell you how many times I correctly called, major market shifts (what would now be called "disruptive") only to have it fall on deaf ears and watch some competitor rise to new heights months to a year later (and eat their lunch).

Nah, someone will steal your work and get credit. Big companies are full of passive aggressive co-workers who won't think twice to screw you over.

> am I too old to be starting my own company or should I chill out because I still have time.

Seems to me youth or age are probably less relevant questions than whether you see an opportunity (and to what degree it's proven), what domain expertise is necessary to address it (and whether you have or can get access to that), and what resources you have available.

And as you noted, there are risks to simply settling into corporate comfort.

I learnt to code and started my online business in my 30s because it's fun. Age shouldn't stop anyone from fun.

30s is young. 20s is still a child.

Just out of curiosity, how did you learn to code on your own and what did you build?

I built CanadaPups.com.

At first I started to learn by reading Computer Science 101 textbooks. The intro MIT textbook is in python and has more depth than other CS101 books. (Guttag, John. Introduction to Computation and Programming Using Python.)

I then went practical, I learnt Ruby on Rails via https://www.railstutorial.org/. It was good to provide me with mental framework of how websites are built... html, coding and database.

For the actual CanadaPups project, I switched from Rails to Django because I found Rails to be too confusing (maybe due to my inexperience at the time).

That's awesome!! How long did it take you to go from zero to launching your website? Did you do this on your free time (were your working full time)?

I worked on it in my free time. I have an non-tech day job. From zero (start reading CS101 book) to launch was 1 year. Could have been less if I didn't abandon my Rails version and re-do in Django.

Nice! Are you still working in your non-tech day job, or have you switched careers? I’m thinking of learning Rails as my first foray into programming.

I'm still in my non-tech day job. Not planning on switching. Just a side project for fun (and profit). I think the Rails Tutorial is a good way to learn basics even if you end up using javascript (react or whatever later on). Ruby is my favorite language, but Django (in Python) suits me well.

I don‘t think people will use this research to „optimize“ their time to fund. If you have an idea and things align you will do that regardless of your age.

I think it provides an interesting contrast to the idea of young-genius unicorn-startups in that it underlines that yes, these companies exist and get a lot of coverage but most innovation still comes from people experienced in their field who had time to learn the appropriate skills for leading a company.

Young founder ages are mentioned specifically because they are unusual. Unfortunately, because many people only see ‘newsworthy’ information they get a very distorted view of reality.

> I for one look at them as am I too old to be starting my own company or should I chill out because I still have time.

It's an "average" not a law.

These studies often ignore the power law. The vast majority of value generated in tech is powered by a tiny number of companies. Here are the five most valuable tech companies as of 2017 vs. the age of the founders:

1. Apple: $570.7B explained

  - Jobs: 21
  - Woz: 26
2. Alphabet: $560B

  - Larry/Sergey: 25ish
3. Microsoft: $434B

  - Gates: 19
  - Allen: 22
4. Amazon: $365B

  - Bezos: 29
5. Facebook: $354B

  - Zuckerberg: 19

I am not sure it ignores it.

For someone who is 18 and very creative, the facts you posted could be helpful to say that they have a chance to be insane lucky if they have the aprox 1 in a billion set of skills and timing required to make it to market.

On the other hand, the stats in the article point out that for someone in their 30s or 40s, they have 1/(10? 50?) chance to be able to found a successful startup, for some definition of the word startup. This in general seems a much more useful message to push.

A similar story is around education. Some of the richest people in the world did not attend college. However, for 99.9999% of the people - going to to college and getting a science or other hard degree is going to lead to a much nicer life then to go straight from high school to the working world.

Cool to look at the 1 in a billion case, it is not always as useful for a case study.

Lady Gaga worked hard and got rich and famous. But you’re probably not Lady Gaga.

It’s funny that we understand this hit-based reality for music, tv, movie, and sports stars, but can’t seem to grasp it when it comes to startups.

Going the other way around is interesting too. If you look at how early many of them started working hard it doesn't quite seem as random. Say, Taylor Swift, by the time she was 12 or 13 it was pretty apparent she was dead set on making it in the music industry. And no, she didn't hit it right-off, did plenty of not-so-notable work for a while.

Just an FYI on Taylor Swift, she is not an "aww shucks" country music girl that cut her teeth by playing at malls and smaller venues. Her wealthy father purchase part of a record label which then signed her. The image that is portrayed is propaganda.

It's like the "Bill Gate's mom was on the board of IBM, so he's a phony" story. Just as in tech, successful people in other industries tend to have supportive parents.

How does hard work make me have these wealthy parents?

Surely it's understood.

The difference is that far, far fewer people have a moderately successful entertainment career compared to the many people who have successful software development careers.

With startups the distribution would be less like software developers but still not as extreme in terms of outcome as for entertainment. Ff you have a company that you sell for 5M or whatever that you own a quarter of you've done very well by normal standards but barely feature in value with the huge tech companies.

It's also common for people to write pop stars like Lady Gaga off as no-talent hacks who are totally run by their handlers, which is of course nonsense.

Who is "we". I get it ;)

The first incarnation of Apple is hardly the same Apple that the mature Jobs basically re-created from scratch with a different line of products.

At this point these companies are really just an amalgamation of hundreds of companies that all have created value. So the big ones may have younger founders, but they are also composed of many smaller companies that had older founders.

The distribution of ownership would tend to disagree that they are "just" an amalgamation.

Sure, I could believe that young people have a better chance of founding a $100B business. But I (and almost everyone else thinking about founding a startup) isn't going for the $100B moonshot, just becoming your "everyday" successful entrepreneur with a <$100M exit is quite enough, and I find it very plausible that 45 year olds are much, much better at building those.

Salesforce: $111B

  - Benioff: 35
Oh well.

Netflix: $147B

- Reid Hastings: 37

Oh well pt II

These are once in a life time exceptions - all these people were there at the exactly right point in place, history and time. A lot of people have done very well for themselves who were there at the exactly the same point time ("millionaire good").

In the majority of all other cases - experience combined with additional ingredients leads to success.

Jobs was 49 when iPhone development began.

And before the mid 90s, Apple was in constant peril of being wiped out.

> And before the mid 90s, Apple was in constant peril of being wiped out.

People always seem to forget this fact!

These are all consumer tech companies. The article takes this into account.

There is chasm between a small business and a $570b business and all of it is still success.

These are outliers (as unicorn companies are, in general).

You can't treat statistics about humans the same way you treat probabilities about trajectories in a mechanics experiment. People live in a level two chaotic system, which means that the existence of statistics can affect future outcome. Statistics say your age or race (or whatever) isn't optimal to do what you want to do (e.g. be a successful founder)? Screw that! Be the actor that wobbles future statistics, proving we're in a level two world! Force those statisticians to scratch their head when their models don't work out right!

These statistics should certainly be interesting for investors, but there are so many more factors of the equation (like personality, drive, grit, access to capital through friends, etc) that are probably much more significant (even in a rigorous statistical sense) to the outcome of a company, that founders themselves are better off just ignoring it. And besides, a founder is a high agency individual, are you really going to let age (whether it be too old or too young) stop you?

People at 18-25 are largely impatient and willing to invest crazy energy and time in very insignificant (for the revenue) directions.

I think it's pretty normal to stereotype young people, especially having in mind that most of us were impatient and lacked focus / direction at our younger age as well.

Exceptions do exist. My wife is 22 and has to be the most patient and level-headed person I ever met. But those exceptions are very few and far between.

Again, it's a pretty safe bet to stereotype young people.

The original source is here [1] at Ben Jones’s site (he’s a co-author). The HBR article is naturally a popular summary, but the underlying research seems to cover everything people are curious about in the threads so far (distribution of age, what was the criteria for high-growth, etc.).

Like most NBER articles, it’s quite long, but you can skip to the end for the figures and get a lot out of it. Figure 1 is the main thing being reported, but I found Figure 4B to be the most important: founders over 30 have a higher likelihood of success.

[1] https://www.kellogg.northwestern.edu/faculty/jones-ben/htm/A...

Who is the most famous tech founder who was 45 or older when they founded their first company?

There were more in the 70s, 80s, or 90s (E.g. Jim Clark) because the industry was still forming, but even then the wunderkind college dropout drove most of the value creation.

In the modern era, Peter Gassner, founder of Veeva was 42. Diane Greene founded VMWare at 43. Brian Acton was 38. You start falling into the 30s fairly quickly.

And if we look in terms of value creation, the crazy outsize wins come from founder founders. E.g. the GAFA companies were all founded by sub-30s.

This study, like most of the Kauffman Foundation studies, tend to rely on obscure methods to reach these counterintuitive results. It's not to say 45-year-olds can't build great companies, but if you made a list of the 150-200 most notable tech startups of the last few decades, you'd see an average age closer to 33 than 45, even lower if you don't include the 2nd or 3rd startups of some founders.

Being successful and being famous are two completely different things only tangentially related.

The 30 companies that have famous founders are far outweighed by the ten thousand that you don't know of. On more than one occasion I’ve found myself working for absolutely massive companies (public in many cases) that I’d never previously even heard of. I’ve definitely had a lot of those, “Holy shit, how is this the biggest company I’ve never heard of,” experiences. There are a lot of companies in finance, telecom, and infrastructure that you don’t think about because they don’t have an app that sits on your home screen.

Yep, younger founders skew heavily toward consumer apps, partly because it's what they know. And those are much more likely to be well known by the general public.

As an example, I'm pretty sure there's no such thing as a third-party solution developer for Salesforce who is famous like this, but you can bet a lot of them are making good money. They probably skew older, too.

I am 41, startup CEO for ~14 months, and currently having one of the worst days since the company started. (edit: actually, the worst day period).

Although you might be right on statistics, I am 100% sure 10 years ago I wouldn't have had the maturity or the experience or the grit to face this day, the way I do right now.

Also, don't forget that today's returns are huge, compared to 10-20 years ago, and that today's entrepreneurs start earlier than their equivalent of 20 years ago.

It's hard to make sense of these numbers without bias or without any risk of misinterpreting things.

Sorry to hear about today. Hang in there, you got this!


>(This study, like most of the Kauffman Foundation studies, tend to rely on obscure methods to reach these counterintuitive results*

The article seems to make a fairly solid case:

"Our team analyzed the age of all business founders in the U.S. in recent years by leveraging confidential administrative data sets from the U.S. Census Bureau. We found that the average age of entrepreneurs at the time they founded their companies is 42. But the vast majority of these new businesses are likely small businesses with no intentions to grow large (for example, dry cleaners and restaurants). To focus on businesses that are closer in spirit to the prototypical high-tech startup, we used a variety of indicators: whether the firm was granted a patent, received VC investment, or operated in an industry that employs a high fraction of STEM workers. We also focused on the location of the firm, in particular whether it was in an entrepreneurial hub such as Silicon Valley. In general, these finer-grained analyses do not modify the main conclusion: The average age of high-tech founders falls in the early forties."

What's the counter-argument? That the famous founders of the 20-so most known companies are young?

There are thousands of tech companies founded, even on SV, not just the household names (and the household names are a tiny sample anyway).

Not the 20 best known, the 150 best known. I'd wager if you went 500 deep, you'd see the age being much closer to 30 than 45.

The criteria of this study isn't bad, but I'd much rather just see a list of companies they're defining as startups. Is there a big biotech contingent? Are consulting companies included? B2B vs. B2C? Inc. Magazine published a list of the 500 fastest growing companies every year, and there's very little overlap between that list and what we'd consider the world of tech startups. This methodology feels more like Inc.

> Who is the most famous tech founder who was 45 or older when they founded their first company?

This is a straw man fallacy. I think you're conflating the definition of "successful startup" with a cohort of "famous tech" founders, which has some merit (lower age yields higher risk).

The broader definition of "successful startup" is more about "fast growing" or "economic impact". The emphasis is on founders of “growth oriented” firms that can have large economic impacts and are often associated with driving increasing standard of living.

An MIT Sloan study found the mean founder age for the 1 in 1,000 fastest growing companies is 45.0.


I've seen a lot of studies that make this assertation, but the fact that it's hard to think of many examples in the world of tech startups makes me skeptical.

Your sample size is low. How many tech startups can you rattle off in total, period?. I assure you it's insignificant compared to the complete sum.

That's fair, but how many 45+ founders can you rattle off, who have founded companies with $10M+ in revenue?

Off the top of my head without checking, the intel guys, marc pincus & reed hastings.

> Diane Greene founded VMWare at 43. Brian Acton was 38. You start falling into the 30s fairly quickly.

Besides VMWare, some tech companies with over-40 founders are Adobe, Craigslist, Zynga, Xiaomi, Netscape, Akamai, SanDisk, McAfee, Seagate, the list goes on (you can find even more examples in a comment by user "adventured" in this same thread [1]).

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18213942

Gordon Moore was 37 when Intel was founded.

I think part of this is the fact that young founders are in the game longer. A 20 year old will have 20 years of high-growth compounding on their wealth over a 40 year old just getting into the game. When you're using market cap as the measuring stick, it will usually favor those who've been in the game longer.

Honest and possibly ignorant question here.

Wouldn’t the median be more representative of how old the common founder would be?

In a very simplistic example with a data set of two people aged 20 and 70 you would get 45 as the average age when in fact that doesn’t reflect the reality.

I always struggle when thinking about average vs median.

There is a chart in the article that gives you a better idea of the distribution.

Without looking at the data, I'd bet that this skews the opposite of that way. In my observation of the world, 70 years olds don't often start up companies (tech or otherwise) - 18 year olds do. Given that, the median will probably be even higher than 45.

I find it interesting that 45 was the average age when starting a top company, and since this was a 5 year mark survey they were all 50 at the time.

That, and a view into whether the distribution is bi-modal.

Yes, the median would be a better data point. Even better would be a qualification of "successful".

Are they equating successful startups that are worth a million to trillion dollar companies like apple and amazon?

> I always struggle when thinking about average vs median.

Median takes away the bias of the extremes that averages can include.

For example, if 9 people make $1 and 1 person makes $1000000, the average is about $100,000 while the media is $1. The $1 is more representative of the sample.

But in this "research", there are far more data to unpack. Like the quality and quantity of "successful".

> Even better would be a qualification of "successful".

Did you... read the article?

Fourth paragraph:

"Among the top 0.1% of startups based on growth in their first five years, we find that the founders started their companies, on average, when they were 45 years old. These highest-performing firms were identified based on employment growth. The age finding is similar using firms with the fastest sales growth instead, and founder age is similarly high for those startups that successfully exit through an IPO or acquisition. In other words, when you look at most successful firms, the average founder age goes up, not down. Overall, the empirical evidence shows that successful entrepreneurs tend to be middle-aged, not young."

You can _disagree_ with their definition of success, but they certainly have one.

>Median takes away the bias of the extremes that averages can include.

What sort of extremes do you expect to see in age data for starting a business?

There will be no 10 years olds, and likely no 90 years olds.

>But in this "research", there are far more data to unpack.

Why the quotations? Do you not believe this is research? This is a 1000 word summary of their work; do you think these researchers, from some of the best schools on the planet, didn't consider the sorts of questions you pose?

... and the mode is 1.

Measures of central tendency worth keeping in mind when talking "averages":

mean - what people usually mean by "average"

median - central point on a number line (ie, the same number of items are greater, and lower, than the median)

mode - the number which is most common in the set

> there is a more benign possibility: VCs are not simply looking to identify the firms with the highest growth potential. Rather, they may seek investments that will yield the highest returns, and it is possible that young founders are more financially constrained than more experienced ones, leading them to cede upside to investors at a lower price. In other words, younger entrepreneurs may be a better “deal” for investors than more experienced founders.

Seems plausible, but is it true? Anyone have experience to back it up? There are obvious downsides of a better deal with worse odds.

I’ve certainly heard this theory before, so maybe there’s something to it. I’ve heard a few stories of more experienced founders failing to get a term sheet after negotiating well. It’s hard to ever know the reasons, and from what I’ve seen founders tend to take VC rejections personally and/or jump to negative conclusions about VCs when they don’t close, so I tend to take rejection stories with a grain of salt.

It's easier for VCs to take advantage of inexperience and ambition. Most suicide bombers are young too.

I recently heard a podcast on How I built it, by Guy Ras, about Cisco.

Your statement rings so true. VC, in this case Sequoia capital, tried to drive an emotional wedge between the two original founders of Cisco and exploited them. Its a fascinating podcast about the culture of VC money. Im sure there are far worse stories now.

Nothing new to add, just wanted to say How I Built This is a fantastic podcast. :)

If they invest at a company 100k at a cap of of $3mil and discount of 20%, then they will effectively 10X their returns if the company sells for $30mil.

Now if they invest at a company founded by experienced entrepreneurs that has same traction as the previous company, they might have to put-in $1mil at a $10mil cap and they’ll need the company to have an exit of $100mil to 10x their money.

I haven’t looked at the data personally but my hypothesis is inexperienced founders and $30mil exits are more likely than over $100 mil exits with experienced founders. It’s far more likely to sell for $30mil than it is to have an exit upwards of $100mil. So while a n experienced entrepreneur will be more likely to have an exit at $30 mil than an inexperienced one, it won’t produce the same returns for the investors

Ben Jones (one of the authors of this article) talks about this research on an episode of NPR's Planet Money Indicator. In the episode they make the case that older startup founders are actually more successful than their younger peers for a number of reasons. It's a short listen, if you want to hear more


I can tie this back to my own experience as well. Humility generally comes with age, and it's important in running a successful and socially responsible business. It's easy to get caught up in the young successful founder myth because that's what gets the most press. But look at a guy like Bill Gates. I'm sure had he started Microsoft 20 years later (assuming all conditions were ripe for it), he would have done it quite differently and likely would have had less law suits on his hand. That being said, I do think there's much to be said about the ambitiousness of the ideas when you're younger than when you're older. Your view of the world changes tremendously.

In some ways, it's also easier to run a startup when you're younger. Most younger people have more energy and fewer family obligations. But, that also explains why 45 makes a lot of sense... if you have kids they're probably old enough that they're doing a lot of their own things so you've got the wisdom from age (experience) and you've shed some of the family responsibilities that you might have at, say, age 35.

Kids who do their own things, leaves a lot of time at hand. As a father of a 3 year old, I find it very difficult to sneak in even 15 minutes of thinking time. Of course, it dosent help that im also working while planning to start a web business.

Younger founders almost certainly also spend more energy on things that an older one already knows not to do, or that can be done more efficiently. Many mistakes that cost time and energy can be mooted by experience.

It would be interesting to see this data broken out by age of children (for those founders who are parents). I'm 34 and I have a newborn. My parents were 23 and 26 when they had me. So my parents' 45 (I was already out of the house) looked different than mine will.

The importance of learning humility and discipline to do what needs to be done to stay an entrepreneur overlooked far too often.

Meteoric rises are difficult to keep in the air because of the lack of foundational skills.

Staying a little foolish and hungry (paraphrasing Steve Jobs) seems to be very good long term advice.

It's probably not really feasible (problems of definition) but I'd love to see some statistics on average age of unsuccessful startup founders, preferably correlated with industry sector, as they've done here, and perhaps with some context of previous / subsequent success by the individual.

As noted in TFA, it seems likely the IT industry would heavily skew the results.

I may be wrong, but I think the problem is that startups are by and large unsuccessful across the board. It's a bit like trying to find the cause of a disease by looking at what doesn't cause a disease.

I did a quick search and got a lot of different answers, but the overwhelming number I got was that "over 90%" of startups fail in the first 3 years. With that, the number of possible common variables is going to be overwhelming.

However, it does potentially answer the question of why successful founders tend to be in their 40's. If you have a 90% chance of failing in the first 3 years, if you start 10 startups, perhaps you have a good chance of succeeding ;-)

Gave it a glacez but it's important to realize you're probably not successful in your first rodeo.

Success might happen in 45, but I'd wager most of those 45s have a few companies under their belts.

I'd be interested to know if they're founders of those companies or they just participated in them during the early days. My guess is a typical 45 year old founder had one or two unsuccessful companies they founded, not a few. And of the companies they participated in but didn't found, maybe some were successful. But these are just guesses, and it would be nice to see some data.

I only skimmed over the article, but it seems to me that their data doesn‘t take into account that Angel/VC investors might be mistaken for actual founders in case they held shares since incorporation. This would of course largely invalidate their main claim. Can anyone confirm/deny?

Age could be a factor, but I think it’s all about grooming and connections. You can have Google on your resume and get funded. You might have been groomed from birth for success and you’ll get funded.

Success itself is whether the idea had merit and a solid team is built.

> Success itself is whether the idea had merit and a solid team is built.

Even the concept of an idea being meritable is relative -- it depends on who is making the assessment.

Fred Wilson didn't think AirBnB had merit, in fact he thought the whole thing was ridiculous [0], no matter how hard pg tried to convince him otherwise [1].

[0] https://avc.com/2011/03/airbnb/

[1] http://www.paulgraham.com/airbnb.html

Find a successful startup that didn’t have naysayers. Merit is measured by the founder getting customers and proving the model. Not what “experts” say.

When do they measure the age? I worked at a company that took 20 years from conception to IPO. So is it the conception age or success age?

Paragraph 2 starts like this:

> Our team analyzed the age of all business founders in the U.S. in recent years by leveraging confidential administrative data sets from the U.S. Census Bureau. We found that the average age of entrepreneurs at the time they...

So they do answer your question in the article.

Next sentence - "the average age of entrepreneurs at the time they founded their companies is 42"

I've compiled and added to this list over time. When you go digging for how old the founders of major tech companies have been, you'll find they're overwhelmingly closer to their mid 30s, nearly all are over ~27, with plenty in their 40s. Exceptionally few have been like Gates, Jobs and Zuckerberg. If you're 30 and you think it's too late, it's not, you may not have even hit your prime yet.

Ages of founders:

Paul Graham (31, Viaweb), Jan Koum (33, WhatsApp), Brian Acton (37, WhatsApp), Ev Williams (34, Twitter), Jack Dorsey (30, Twitter; 33, Square), Elon Musk (31, SpaceX; 32, Tesla), Garrett Camp (30, Uber), Travis Kalanick (32, Uber), Brian Chesky (27, Airbnb), Adam Neumann (31, WeWork), Reed Hastings (37, Netflix), Reid Hoffman (36, LinkedIn), Jack Ma (35, Alibaba), Jeff Bezos (30, Amazon), Jerry Sanders (33, AMD), Marc Benioff (35, Salesforce), Ross Perot (32, EDS), Peter Norton (39, Norton), Larry Ellison (33, Oracle), Mitch Kapor (32, Lotus), Leonard Bosack (32, Cisco), Sandy Lerner (29, Cisco), Gordon Moore (39, Intel), Mark Cuban (37, Broadcast.com), Scott Cook (31, Intuit), Nolan Bushnell (29, Atari), Paul Galvin (33, Motorola), Irwin Jacobs (52, Qualcomm), David Duffield (46, PeopleSoft; 64 Workday), Aneel Bhusri (39, Workday), Thomas Siebel (41, Siebel Systems), John McAfee (42, McAfee), Gary Hendrix (32, Symantec), Scott McNealy (28, Sun), Markus Persson (30, Mojang), Craig Newmark (43, Craigslist), James Goodnight (33, SAS), John Sall (28, SAS), Diane Greene (43, VMWare), Mendel Rosenblum (36, VMWare), Bill Coleman (48, BEA Systems), Evan Goldberg (35, NetSuite), David Sacks (36, Yammer), Jack Smith (28, Hotmail), Sabeer Bhatia (28, Hotmail), Chad Hurley (28, YouTube), Andy Rubin (37, Danger; 41, Android), Rodney Brooks (36, iRobot), Jeff Hawkins (35, Palm), Niklas Zennström (37, Skype), Janus Friis (27, Skype), David Bohnett (38, Geocities), Bill Gross (40, GoTo.com/Overture), Subrah Iyar (38, WebEx), Min Zhu (47, WebEx), Pierre Omidyar (28, eBay), Rich Barton (29 for Expedia, 38 for Zillow), Jim Clark (38 for SGI, and 49 for Netscape), Charles Wang (32, CA), David Packard (27, HP), John Warnock (42, Adobe), Robert Noyce (30 at Fairchild, 41 for Intel), Rod Canion (37, Compaq), Jen-Hsun Huang (30, nVidia), Eli Harari (41, SanDisk), Sanjay Mehrotra (28, SanDisk), Al Shugart (48, Seagate), Finis Conner (34, Seagate), Henry Samueli (37, Broadcom), Henry Nicholas (32, Broadcom), Charles Brewer (36, Mindspring), William Shockley (45, Shockley), Ron Rivest (35, RSA), Adi Shamir (30, RSA), John Walker (32, Autodesk), Halsey Minor (30, CNet), David Filo (28, Yahoo), Jeremy Stoppelman (27, Yelp), Eric Lefkofsky (39, Groupon), Andrew Mason (29, Groupon), Wilfred Corrigan (43, LSI), Joe Parkinson (33, Micron), Aart J. de Geus (32, Synopsys), John Moores (36, BMC Software), Vivek Ranadivé (40, Tibco), Michael Baum (41, Splunk), Suhas Patil (37, Cirrus Logic), T. J. Rodgers (34, Cypress Semi), Scott Scherr (37, Ultimate Software), Ray Stata (31, Analog Devices), Ross Freeman (36, Xilinx), David Hitz (28, NetApp), Brian Lee (28, Legalzoom), Demis Hassabis (34, DeepMind), Tim Westergren (35, Pandora), Martin Lorentzon (37, Spotify), Ashar Aziz (44, FireEye), Kevin O'Connor (36, DoubleClick), Ben Silbermann (28, Pinterest), Evan Sharp (28, Pinterest), Steve Kirsch (38, Infoseek), Stephen Kaufer (36, TripAdvisor), Michael McNeilly (28, Applied Materials), Eugene McDermott (52, Texas Instruments), Richard Egan (43, EMC), Gary Kildall (32, Digital Research), Hasso Plattner (28, SAP), Robert Glaser (32, Real Networks), Patrick Byrne (37, Overstock.com), Marc Lore (33, Diapers.com), Ed Iacobucci (36, Citrix Systems), Ray Noorda (55, Novell), Tom Leighton (42, Akamai), Daniel Lewin (28, Akamai), Michael Mauldin (35, Lycos), Tom Anderson (33, MySpace), Chris DeWolfe (37, MySpace), Mark Pincus (41, Zynga), Nir Zuk (30, Palo Alto Networks), Caterina Fake (34, Flickr), Stewart Butterfield (31 for Flickr; 40 for Slack), Kevin Systrom (27, Instagram), Adi Tatarko (37, Houzz), Brian Armstrong (29, Coinbase), Pradeep Sindhu (43, Juniper), Peter Thiel (31, PayPal; 37, Palantir), Jay Walker (42, priceline.com), Tom Gosner (40, DocuSign), Shay Banon (31, Elastic), Beerud Sheth (29, Elance), Arkady Volozh (36, Yandex), Hiroshi Mikitani (34, Rakuten), Morris Chang (56, Taiwan Semi)

It has also largely held true in China:

Pony Ma (27, Tencent), Robin Li (32, Baidu), Liu Qiangdong (29, JD.com), Lei Jun (40, Xiaomi), Ren Zhengfei (38, Huawei), Cheng Wei (29, Didi Chuxing), James Liang (29, Ctrip), Zhang Yiming (Toutiao, 29), Wang Xing (30, Meituan-Dianping), Wang Zhidong (32, Sina)

Looking at the first row, I'd just point out that some of these are repeat founders at the ages listed:

Elon founded Zip2 right out of undergrad, Garrett Camp founded StumbleUpon while in grad school, and Kalanick left UCLA undergrad to found Scour and then kind of expanded on that with Red Swoosh right after.

Most of these are still accurate and it's really cool data, so thank you for posting; just figured it was worth commenting on nonetheless. :)

This is important. There's a big difference between getting started at 45 and founding your third company at 45.

I don't think there is something biological, or even social that makes it hard to be a late-bloomer in tech entrepreneurship. It's just hard to develop an entirely new skillset and network in later-middle age. I think we'd mostly be skeptical of a doctor who started medical school at 45, and while the stakes for founders aren't as severe, the same principle applies.

Well, we'd be even more skeptical of a doctor who dropped out of undergrad, never got a degree, and was promising world changing results, which is the prevailing narrative Silicon Valley seems to want to believe.

There's an important difference between "dropped out of undergrad because you were failing" and "quit your course because your company succeeded so hard that finishing your course was irrelevant."

You probably wouldn't be sceptical of a managing director of a medical research company who'd dropped out of med school when they reached 10+ employees.

I would be very skeptical actually. I might point to Theranos as an example of just what you describe too.

Given how many people believed in Theranos I think it's fair to say that their founder was pretty credible, despite the ultimate outcome.

> It's just hard to develop an entirely new skillset and network in later-middle age.

To leave age out of it, the study shows that those who successfully founded growth companies already had the skillset and network to draw on. (Perhaps the older ages were due to the years it takes for someone build their skillset and network?)

The idea is that the life experience you accumulate - and everything that goes with that - is often extremely valuable, critical to success. Zip2 got Musk started, it no doubt helped him accumulate experience and connections to start and run later ventures - training wheels for what came later.

Musk could build Zip2 at 24. I would say there's zero chance he could have successfully built Tesla or SpaceX at 24 (ignoring the capital requirements). I think that far more often than not, to start and build great companies, requires a small lifetime of accumulated experience and mistakes.

The media myth of the tech industry and its important companies being founded by 19 year old Zuckerbergs, is just that, a myth. The media loves that story because it sells, it's just not real.

Exactly. The list consists of the successful startups that they founded, but not the ones that they tried and failed at before finding success.

I'd like to think that most successful founders fail at their first few not so noteworthy "side-projects" before finding success and sticking to it. Just building a crappy version of something not-so-cool can teach you a lot about tech, business and design, which then helps you build better products in the future.

Based on that list, median (and average) founder age is 35. The most common ages are 28 (15), 37 (14), and 32 (12), 36 (11), 33 (9), and 30 (9).

This is a great list!

It would be nice if you put it up as a table in Markdown on your GitHub so others can contribute additions or corrections, along with citations.

And yet, the first thing companies do when there's any hint of trouble on the horizon is layoff anyone over 40-45.

> the first thing companies do when there's any hint of trouble on the horizon is layoff anyone over 40-45.

well, they're not the 'founders' in most cases.

No, but the point is that those people have valuable experience. But they're probably laid off purely from a numbers standpoint, they likely have a higher salary than the junior people. The decision likely isn't based on the merit of the candidates when a company is in trouble; however, that seems like OP's point... that maybe it should be.

45 is the peak of life (knowledge, experience, network) if you are healthy and out of troubles, so no wonder.

The average of the American worker is probably also roughly 45. Not sure what this adds.

~50% of the top 10 companies in the world by market cap (Facebook, Alphabet, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon) were all started by founders aged 30 or younger. The rest are companies that are over 100 years old (or merged from ones that were) and Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway. I'm by no means saying you can't do it when you're older, but when you're a VC in the business of hitting home runs, it is just hard to ignore that fact.

It's also hard to ignore the fact that the 'sexiest' companies in that list are the aforementioned 5 started by young founders.

there are a ton of companies that reach 150 mln dollar valuation and get sold. You don't hear about those, all you hear is consumer facing giants. Those are probably more likely to be founded by younger people. A 45 year old is probably more likely to sell early, but I am guessing.

What is a "sexy" company exactly?

It is interesting to see that a successful startup is defined as being the top 1% of employment growth in its first 5 years. I wonder if Theranos would've also been included in this definition. In some culture, selling your own company or having no revenue are considered failures. Yet those "failures" are common theme in the valley.

In my own startup experiences, whatever founders goals may be, startups are successful (only?) when they exit their startup phase with goals achieved.

Must have been a slow day at the HBR.

What evidence is there that a startup's founders age is a determinate of success? What does it mean to be successful in this context? in general? What other properties of a startup founder might contribute to the startup's success? How are those properties related to her/his age.

What's the average age of people you fund?

About 29. A lot of people think it's younger because the press especially like to write about young founders.


What's the average starting age of a successful entrepeneurs?

That would be a more relevant statistic

Young have the freedom to risk, so they do. The most fail, but some survive. Older have less freedom, so fewer risk. Not as many fail, so some survive. We observe some young and some older founders who have survived. What does it tell us? Not much.

I'm not in the starup biz, but this doesn't surprise me. Seems to me that any many cases having the right idea, particularly in b2b, requires deep domain knowledge.

That’s true but it’s also true that when you look at just the giants (Apple Facebook Google Amazon Microsoft etc) the average age of the founder is much lower than 51.

What's the difference between becoming a founder at this age and being young with "adult supervision"?

What's the average (at the time of founding) age of say, the top 10 highest acquired startups, or highest IPOs, etc

Weird, literally used this in a source for a commment today.

What happens if we condition on past startups?

I don't get all the "entrepreneur" founder worship stuff. The disconnected tech set has produced a lot of money - and burned a lot more. They've ruined our ability to connect to each other so that we could connect on Facebook. They've ruined sidewalks with scooters, lost all of our data, participated in tracking us at all times, helped ICE deport children, and made a wage slaves out of people at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder by greasing the "gig" economy wheels with algorithms.

At what point do we, as technical people, wake up and go "hey, maybe all this bullshit lingo, youth fetishism, digital isolation and community destruction is bad as a whole?"

I'd rather see content about a founder who actually helped people somewhere solve some problem, and it made things better for regular people - those outside the tech bubble.

It seems like all everyone wants to do is blast off with like minded people.

One of the reasons I passed on the 2000's was the only things founded were quite destructive to society as a whole. Only to be eclipsed by the 2010's (which are objectively, much much worse).

I come back to it now, and the culture, is complete crap, and to be blunt, delusional.

tl;dr VCs prefer young founders because they're easier to exploit.

At an early age, you work in order to understand the market and the customer, working close and listen to their needs! Then you find the tier 1 problem! You give a solution! Then at 45, you become a co-founder and your life becomes your job! You probably work 80-100 hours a week. You are 80 years old, you die having changed the world! Your children live in abundance, but you keep the glory and so your name lives for a long time in human history!

I've met billionaires who know the "what" and the "how" but can't give me a meaningful "Why". Their "Why" always translates in the fact that they will disrupt the world. I believe that something is missing.

I am absolutely positive but one's more and even living an eternal life I can not help myself find meaning and wellbeing in starting up a business and human existence in general. If we do not include social entrepreneurship, why devote so much time for a belief to change the world without knowing that the world actually needs that change and it is not wasteful. We should re-define the "Why" before starting a business. Otherwise, we ended up doing business for the sake of business.

Life is certainly worth living and changing the world at young or older age is absolutely helpful for humanity. But the paradox is that we find the worth of life by finding our own true worth first. Transcending all the illusions of limitations, and realizing oneness with nature's consciousness maybe is the ultimate purpose of human life.

To conclude, I'd say at a young age develop self-awareness, define you in relation to the universe and then at an older age share your inner value with others(or keep it yourself). Don't just iterate the norms. Think out of the box!

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