It’s a sexy story often told: A handful of college roommates have that aha moment, scribble some code or put a spin on some process, and end up making a pile of money disrupting an industry run by the olds. All the experience you need to start a billion-dollar business is right there, the narrative tells us, at the bottom of a Red Bull and in the pocket of your American Giant hoodie.
The thing is, this youth-conquers-all tale is largely a lie. It’s an unrepresentative trope driven by the attention given to exceptions like Mark Zuckerberg (or, for an uncritical moment, Elizabeth Holmes), and reinforced by media who think stories of outstanding digital natives, rather than the broader truth, makes for a better, click-ier tweet or Medium post or AlleyWatch email.
Most successful entrepreneurs are older—and the ones running the highest growth businesses, according to research at MIT and the Kauffman Foundation, are nearly twice the age Zuckerberg was. That may be surprising, but it makes sense. Age, or at least experience and maturity, makes for better surgeons, pilots, professors, or even Special Forces soldiers. Why should startup success and job creation be any different?
In my work as an entrepreneur in residence in the Venture Center at the Stevens Institute of Technology, mentoring startups and as a consultant to mature businesses facing disruption, I consistently see five traits that give older founders an edge. The takeaway, though, is that there are ways to hone that edge, even if you’re younger.
With age comes experience dealing with failure—or in certain cases, many failures. Harland David—better known as “Colonel”—Sanders, only franchised his secret recipe at 62, after holding at least 13 different jobs, from laborer to lawyer. You live, you learn, you try again. His experience allowed him to see that real success would come by franchising, not owning, every KFC, and, ultimately, by selling control of the parent business.
I’ve seen the same resilience in founders I work with. One recent example: a 56-year-old with several half-starts behind him who began his current business as a series of weekend events. Seeing that there was a better path to scale the business and its revenues, my consulting team and I showed him a P&L forecast based on streaming his experience digitally for a subscription fee instead—not unlike Peloton. He had the maturity to embrace the new business model and is now taking investment and signing long-term enterprise customers.
Research shows that people tend toward one of two kinds of creativity. The first is a more outside-the-box thinking that challenges conventional wisdom; the second is experimental, grounded in interpreting and synthesizing issues with experience and testing. Either type can produce innovation, but there are fewer people who succeed with that first type, conceptual creativity. What’s more, these sorts of thinkers tend to peak with one good idea in their mid-20s.
Meanwhile, the experimentally creative do not reach peak inventiveness until their mid-50s and have more than just that one eureka moment. A political consultant I’ve worked with who didn’t open his own shop until he was about 45 now counts governors, members of Congress, and judges among his election successes just five years later.
It’s a prior career in theater and a lifetime of studying human nature—which is to say experience—that has let him launch dozens of campaigns each year, each with unique strategies and narratives he creates to motivate voters. The same is true with other founders whose targets vote not by ballot but with dollars—people like John Stith Pemberton, who created Coca-Cola, and Otto Frederick Rohwedder, who invented the bread-slicing machine, both at an age when today they’d qualify for AARP membership.
3. Locus of control
Do you recall the “Miracle on the Hudson”? The cockpit voice recording of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger calmly assessing the situation, discarding the suggestion of trying to make it four miles to a private airport, and deciding instead he would land on the river? This is a prime example of having a strong locus of control—a belief in one’s own ability to direct the outcome of events rather than to blame external reasons.
Those with high locus of control aren’t always older, but they have had more experience, and that correlates to a higher capacity for problem-solving. By virtue of having spent most of their lives directed by others—like parents, professors, and administrators—younger folks tend to have not yet developed a strong locus of control nor understanding of how powerful their own agency to problem solve can be.
A business example of not showing control might be a founder saying, “the consumer didn’t like our product.” One who has control would be more inclined to say, “our product didn’t meet consumer expectations.” It’s subtle, but you’ll see how the first statement suggests a take it or leave it attitude, while the second offers room and attitude for self-correction.
There are many reasons businesses fail. What’s remarkable is nearly all of those reasons can be identified early and then controlled for using tools like the Lean Canvas, a single-page business template designed to deconstruct assumptions. But that rarely happens, because the hard work, hitting the wall, stepping back, recalibrating, and trying to move ahead again is far less exciting than producing a cool prototype.
In fact, I have worked with startups that built beautiful minimum viable products. I have seen them move from a product for one platform, say a slick app for a phone, to a web app for desktop, to a watch interface, and to even begin work on goggles. I have seen them produce impressive materials and product claims. I have been almost convinced they would succeed . . . if only they had taken the advice of their mentors and set out to understand whether or not consumers actually wanted what they made.
It’s only one example, but a good one of why discipline is so important. More than a minimum viable product, product market fit and customer discovery is crucial to success. It’s also incredibly difficult for younger founders—many raised in the era of the participation trophy—to embrace. They have an idea. A great idea. They love their idea. They don’t want to be told their idea sucks, and so they avoid consumer feedback.
But the feedback is necessary. I liken it to asking someone out when you’re young. That first time can be agonizingly hard, avoided for days or weeks or forever. But once you do it, and you realize you’re still breathing, it becomes easier and easier, until you realize there’s really no better way to find the right match.
5. Knowing what they don’t know
As a consultant, I worked with a business whose founder was a former sheep farmer. He’d attended a lot of trade shows in his time (I guess sheep need the latest stuff as much as anyone else) and had a sense of how to put on an event people enjoyed—in his case, a successful product invention competition. That competition was so good television executives wanted to turn it into a show. As much as our hero may have known about sheep and events, he understood he knew little of television or video—places where I have some experience.
So he reached out. Together with my colleagues, each specialists in aspects of media, built out a plan, put experts in place, and the business began to grow into a tidy success—and acquisition target. Conversely, I see too many young startups whose 18- or 19-year-old founders anoint themselves with every C-suite title they can imagine. This is not useful.
It’s easy to say, you’re the CMO. It’s much harder to use your personal social media savvy to build a real sticky brand, find the right marketing mix, drive discovery, implement a social strategy that is cost-effective and produces conversions at the right LTV, all while understanding how to win at AdWords and Header Bidding. Better to assess what you really add to the business—and make no mistake, something as basic as passion is incredibly important—and instead use the title of founder and your energy engaging those with a track record of C-suite success to help your success.
To be sure, there are exceptions to all of the above. I know 50-year-olds who have the feels of toddlers and younger people who are fearless warriors in their pursuit of customer discovery or other feedback and are willing to work to clear whatever roadblocks they encounter. To me that is the most exciting thing. As my old Latin teacher once said, astra inclinant, sed non obligant—the stars incline, they do not bind*, which is just a fancy way of saying, you can rise above. You can overcome ingrained handicaps.
Older folks reading this can see this list as strengths to capitalize on, perhaps ones they didn’t know they had. And for younger entrepreneurs: I’ve seen a focused effort applied to the issues above not only scatter those Latin stars aside but create whole new universes in which founders travel farther and faster than they imagined they could go.
*Full disclosure: My Latin teacher never said that. In fact, I never had a Latin teacher. I knew I didn’t know Latin, so I looked it up on Google, a catalog of knowledge anyone who knows what they don’t know (see number 5 above), regardless of their age, should use to their full benefit.
Scott Omelianuk lectures in entrepreneurship at the Stevens Institute of Technology and is an entrepreneur in residence at the Stevens Venture Center. He is a founding partner in MediaScience.io, consultants to startups and challenged businesses.