There’s a great romance about youthful founders. Startups must be full of adolescent dropouts who’re writing code, changing the world, and worrying about zits. You can hardly blame anyone for lionizing the young; Mark Zuckerberg, the preeminent founder of our time, launched Facebook when he was only 20 years old.
But the adoration doesn’t match reality. According to the Kauffman Foundation, a think tank focused on entrepreneurship, the average age for a successful startup founder is about 40 years old.
And a recent study (PDF link) from MIT, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and the U.S. Census Bureau also found that the most successful entrepreneurs are middle-aged. They discovered that startups with growth in the top 1% of their industry had founders with an average age of 45.
The study found that correlation between success and age had a simple explanation: experience matters and older people have more of it.
Why experience is golden
It’s a perspective that Anna Gong, in her early 40s, CEO of Perx Technologies and a veteran of working with four previous startups in Silicon Valley, agrees with. “The mature executives have experience that’s immensely valuable. Back in my Silicon Valley days, many startups hired senior executives to help young founders scale and exit profitably.”
It’s all about execution, Gong says. “The startups we built that had traction were mostly run by seasoned executives who’d left companies like Intel, IBM, and Sun Microsystems. It’s not about if you dropped out of school, it’s about the management and the leadership. Experience is immensely helpful when guiding a growth stage company.”
How founders don’t have to take big risks
“I have a risk-averse approach to entrepreneurship. I did it in my free time, which is a lot of work, but it’s something I recommend.”
— Erwan Mace, Founder and CTO of Bitsmedia
But you don’t have to be a serial entrepreneur and eat ramen from age 20 to 40 to become an experienced founder. Erwan Mace was the VP of Technologies at Vivendi Mobile Entertainment, a large multinational corporation, before he moved back to Singapore. “I didn’t want to rush into a new job,” Mace says. “So in the meantime, I started a company.”
That was the birth of Bitsmedia, a startup that built apps for mobile. But two years into running Bitsmedia Google approached Mace with a job offer.
“We were still small,” Mace recalls, “and none of our apps had really taken off. The Muslim Pro app had been launched the year before, and although it was showing some traction, it was still slow. So I joined Google, and in the evening and weekends, I continued working on Muslim Pro by myself.”
After a year at Google, Muslim Pro gained momentum, and at the age of 39 (editor’s note: close to 40!), Mace left Google to focus on Bitsmedia and Muslim Pro. “The decision was easy enough to make,” Mace says. “The revenue from Muslim Pro became equal to my salary at Google, so there was little risk. I have a risk-averse approach to entrepreneurship. I did it in my free time, which is a lot of work, but it’s something I recommend.”
But Mace was clear he didn’t start his own company just for the money. “I’m a hands-on guy,” he explained. “I had high-profile jobs, which meant less of that. I missed getting my hands dirty, creating something of my own. So no matter what, whether it was a viable business or not, I felt the need to work on my own stuff in my free time.”
What mindset can tell you about success
I distinguish between people with internal and external motivation.
— Hon Meng Moh, Co-Founder and Director of The RightU
This internal drive is something Hon Meng Moh feels is essential for older founders. At 50, Moh has been a serial entrepreneur. He co-founded iFast Corporation at 31, which listed on the SGX in 2014. At 43, 45 and 47, he co-founded three more companies and has invested in several others.
“I distinguish between people with internal and external motivation,” Moh explains. A person who’s attracted by the image of being an entrepreneur, for example, or someone who wants to make a lot of money, is externally motivated.
“When the going gets tough,” Moh says, “and the going will really get tough, these guys are going to think of easier ways to make money. As opposed to people with internal motivation — entrepreneurs who are so passionate about an idea they can’t imagine doing anything else — who tend to persevere longer.”
This inner drive fuels the decisions an older entrepreneur will make. “For someone with internal motivation, age becomes less of a thing, and I find they’re able to take quite a bit of suffering.”
Hard-won wisdom from founders over 40
So what can founders and entrepreneurs of all ages learn from founders over 40?
Don’t do it for the money.
“A lot of people think it’s easy money because you keep reading about successful apps,” Mace says. “They couldn’t be more wrong. Only people with passion, a lot of work, and also a bit of luck, might turn a startup into a successful business. In most cases, it won’t be successful. But if you’re doing something you’re passionate about, you won’t be wasting your time.”
Build your network.
“The number of contacts is more important than your idea,” Moh says. “You can access capital and people from your contacts, so your network must be wide. If you sit there thinking your idea is great but you have no network and no money, I don’t think it’s going to do well. You’ll find that ideas aren’t worth that much, it’s whether you have the network and the capital to pull it off.”
Find the fire.
“I came from China to the US and struggled through all sorts of trials and tribulations,” Gong says. “You have to stand out from the rest, but how do you stand out when you’re a minority, female, and in tech; where there aren’t that many females? My upbringing taught me grit. For me, it’s about where you come from, what struggles you’ve experienced, and what’s that fire in your belly that makes you strive for excellence?”