The Entrepreneur Life Cycle

The usual profile of an entrepreneur is of a young guy just out of college, but is that accurate?

Male? In fact it’s the age of the woman entrepreneur, with increasing numbers of women becoming entrepreneurs and showing a high degree of success. On the other hand, statistics suggest women are usually more cautious in their ventures and so men fail more but strike it richer when they succeed.

Young? Now here’s the real question. Do entrepreneurs peak early, making it a job for young people only? Or can you get better at it over time? This is the question Mark Andreessen asks: is entrepreneurship more like poetry, in which writers peak in their 20s and 30s, or novel writing, in which authors peak in their 40s or 50s?

Let’s look at some possibilities.

  1. Entrepreneurship could be like poetry AND prose. Rather, you could compare entrepreneurship to “writing” and find that different *types* of endeavours are appropriate at different career stages. And that’s what I see across the board – young bucks start dumb ideas at 21 that somehow morph with insane work hours into something cool, and then at 45 they’re starting smarter and smarter companies and working smarter as well (a la Dan Kennedy).
  2. Success in entrepreneurship can be measured in different ways: number of attempts over time, number of successes over time, or size of successes. Typically, younger entrepreneurs have more time and energy to spend on trying, failing, and trying again – the hallmarks of an entrepreneur. This means younger people can afford more risk, and therefore stand to gain more when they succeed. So the chances are that the next Google will be started by people in their 20s or 30s. (Maybe their teens.)
  3. But most entrepreneurs never create a Google, Yahoo or Apple. In fact, all romance aside, most entrepreneurs are running corner stores, flower shops, and small web design boutiques. So maybe it’s irrelevant whether at 48 they’re more likely to hit the world with Myspace than at 21. The point is, they’re NEVER likely to make it that big.
  4. Different products for different ages? Risky, innovative products probably make the most sense when you’re 21 and have nothing to lose… or when you’re 50 and have nothing to lose. Those family building years in the middle are when you might choose to be more conservative.
  5. Can you learn to be a better entrepreneur over time? Just about any entrepreneur I know personally will say YES. You learn about the 80/20 rule and how to apply it to work less for more payout. You acquire contacts and learn tricks that can make starting a new venture take months instead of years. And while younger entrepreneurs have the time and energy, they often don’t understand the importance of “just trying a lot of stuff,” which is something I’ve seen dozens of entrepreneurs learn over time. Many entrepreneurs get more conservative over time, the result of experience teaching what not to do. And this can mean they don’t try things that might have the biggest payout. But on the other hand, they usually have more financial resources and reputation to leverage when they do have a great idea.
  6. Young versus old – what does it mean? Does it mean a young first-time entrepreneur compared with an older first-timer? Or could it mean a 21-year-old with a first business, compared with a 45 year-old who’s owned six businesses and has millions in the bank?
  7. Age depends on the person. A member of my family biked through Europe in his 80’s. I know many teenagers who wouldn’t do that. If we’re looking at average cases, then the “geezers who defy age” don’t count for much. But for one thing, entrepreneurship is not for people who want guaranteed success. So the average case doesn’t matter – if you’re in it, it’s because you’re betting that you, your idea, and your company are better than average.
  8. Are young people more creative? Considering all the bizarre older people I’ve known, I’d say no. But certainly it’s easier for younger people to be more open to new ideas: they haven’t had a chance to see what doesn’t work. But then again, if you’ve been an entrepreneur your entire life, I think that “thinking outside the box” can become a life-long habit.
  9. Time versus effectiveness. Entrepreneurship is largely a numbers game – you try a lot of things, and keep what works. This gives young people an advantage: without a family to support or spend time with, it’s easier to spend all your time working. But on the other hand, young people usually use their time very ineffectively. Over time I’ve seen many entrepreneurs learn how to leverage their time better, and often this is because of having a family. When you have less time to devote, you’re forced to cut the fact and focus on the meat. You have to be more effective. And finally, over time entrepreneurs learn how to make business and family work – often by encouraging family to get involved in the business.

The answer? It depends. At any age I think it’s important to fit your work together with your lifestyle.

I’ve seen a lot of lifetime serial entrepreneurs doing quite well into their 50s, and there have been a number of older CEOs who have gone on to start successful new companies. So I don’t think age has much to do with it. The question for an entrepreneur is still the same: it’s not “can it be done?”

The question is, “can I do it?