If you ask someone how Steve Jobs started Apple, they’re likely to mention a particular Silicon Valley garage, but not the time 12-year-old Steve Jobs worked on an assembly line at Hewlett-Packard as a summer intern. Was Jobs a phenom? Of course. Did he wake up one day, drop out of college, and invent the iPhone? Of course not.
The iPhone was released when Jobs was 52, and Jeff Bezos founded Amazon 25 years ago. Even the statistical outliers who started iconic companies in their 20s and early 30s, like Jobs, Gates, and Bezos, hit their stride after years of starts and stops, and many pain points and pivots.
The young founder myth
Still, the idea of a twentysomething college dropout starting a billion-dollar company overnight persists. The truth is, most successful startup founders gained considerable experience before building a company of their own.
A recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) shows that the average age of high-growth startup founders is 45. Whether measured by employee growth, sales growth, or the event of a successful IPO, the researchers found that most successful entrepreneurs are middle-aged.
So why don’t we hear about these founders? Because their stories are less dramatic. They are not out there defying conventional wisdom and stereotypes. They have successful careers and aren’t always looking to “disrupt” the status quo. They identify a problem after years of experience and use their expertise to create a solution. That’s not as exciting of a narrative as a group of twentysomethings who defy corporate norms and seemingly generate wealth out of nothing.
The benefits of work experience
I was 37 when we founded ZipRecruiter, and I had worked with many companies and held a variety of different roles–including VP and manager. As a CEO, I believe that my most important responsibility is to ask my team what I can do to help them succeed, not give them marching orders.
This is something I may have never learned if I launched a company in my 20s. I only understood this after I took on several leadership roles in different companies. These positions enabled me to build my soft skills, make all the classic mistakes, learn from them, and apply those lessons when I decided to run a startup. You have a lot to learn as a first-time entrepreneur, but you can make it easier on yourself by choosing to brush up on those skills–like managing people–before you start your business and make life a lot easier for yourself in the long run.
I’m not saying you have to be in your 40s to start a great company. One’s age should never be a defining factor for success. What I am arguing is that before you’re ready to start a company, you need to know the problem you’re going to solve, and the unique way you plan to address it. In my experience, the best way to get there is to work for someone else. For a few different companies, in fact.
While having a great idea is necessary for becoming a successful founder of a company, it’s far from sufficient. You’ve also got to be master of your domain and develop the skills required to run a business. According to research from MIT and the U.S. Census Bureau, founders who had prior experience in the industry before starting a company “more than doubled [their] chance of upper-tail growth success.”
I don’t think anyone would argue with me when I say that right now is a fantastic time to be an entrepreneur. Venture capital investment in U.S. companies reached a 10-year high of $130.9 billion in 2018, according to Pitchbook. With so many businesses on steep growth trajectories, and consumers putting more money in their pockets thanks to increasing wages, there’s no shortage of demand for new services and products on the market.
That’s why when I say that now is a great time to be an entrepreneur, as counterintuitive as it may sound, what I mean is that now is a great time to get a job.
Ian Siegel is CEO and cofounder of ZipRecruiter, a leading online employment marketplace that uses AI-driven matching technology to actively connect millions of businesses of all sizes and job seekers across all industries to their next great opportunity.