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I’m a founder in my 40s. Peers say I am too old to succeed. Are they right?

Entrepreneurship definitely is a young person’s game, says Maynard Webb. But there’s no expiration date on one’s ability to innovate.

I’m a founder in my 40s. Peers say I am too old to succeed. Are they right?
[Source image: Sylverarts/iStock]

Editor’s Note: Each week Maynard Webb, former CEO of LiveOps and the former COO of eBay, will offer candid, practical, and sometimes surprising advice to entrepreneurs and founders. To submit a question, write to Webb at dearfounder@fastcompany.com.

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Q. Another founder recently told me that in order to succeed at running a startup, it would be better if I were younger—and if I wasn’t a parent. Is this true? How would you recommend dealing with age bias in the startup community?

—Founder in his 40s

Dear Founder,

Great companies get started by people of any age group.

That said, we do find that a lot of startups come from a younger demographic for two reasons:

  1. Younger founders have fewer obligations
  2. Perhaps related, they are more willing to take on more risk.

When someone is further along in their career, they might have invested several years at a big company, risen the corporate ladder, and find they are pleased with their position. It’s hard to give all of that away to try to go and prove something unknown and build something from scratch. Furthermore, at a certain stage of life, someone may have children and financial obligations and responsibilities that make taking on something less secure untenable. Startups don’t come with safety nets—or big salaries or great benefits—and that’s a tough scenario for people with families to feed and mortgages to pay. The truth is most people are safer at a bigger company because most startups fail. (That said, startups that really succeed can change the trajectory of a family for generations.)

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While there’s an image of working around the clock at a startup and the intensive time it demands, I do not see this as a gating factor. Work-life balance is an issue that anyone faces, whether at a startup or a big corporation. In fact, I find that startups are much more rational about work-life balance. And if you want to succeed, you have to work hard in career, and figure out how to weave everything you want out of work and life together, regardless of where you are.

However, if we are being honest, there is an age bias to contend with—we’ve heard people saying all creativity comes from the younger generations. Some people think creativity expires, that it’s only for the young, but I believe that’s false. Creativity can be found everywhere at any time. Bob Dylan is still writing new songs, Bill Gates is solving massive global problems, and the average age at which physicists do their Nobel Prize winning work is 48.  There’s no expiration date on one’s ability to innovate.

I started new ventures in my 50s, and while some might say I should now be thinking about retirement, I don’t see it that way. I’m looking to what I can still start, because the best days and the most meaningful contributions are always ahead.

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