Many years ago, i taught an MBA class of “Family Business Management” at the NMIMS in Mumbai. These kids were scions of business folks, and wanted to get trained in classical B school routines to add to their genetically inherited skills, so that they could go back and run their parents’ businesses in the modern way
Contrast with young Ravi – an analyst in my organisation, who was also a businessman’s son, (his father runs a shop in Punjab) but said he wanted to work for 4 – 5 years in corporate life, so he picked up some skills before he went out and started something on his own, while keeping an eye out for his dad’s business.
Brings me to a question I have often been asked – what is the right age to begin a business? Is there a correlation of age with success as an entrepreneur?
Some research i did brought me to the apparent bible on this – The Kauffmann Index of entrepreneurial activity . In 2010, it published some interesting stats, which basically said that in the U.S., the average age of founders was 39 years, with twice as many over age 50 as under age 25. Also, Vivek Wadhwa, a senior research associate with the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, came up with the age 40 for average entrepreneurs by studying 549 successful technology ventures.
Surprised? I was, actually (personal experience notwithstanding). I would have thought, with the Facebooks, the Googles, The Microsofts of the world, with great ecosystems like the Silicon Valley thrown in, with atleast one dotcom boom having struck in the last 15 years, I would have seen a far greater skew to younger entrepreneurs. Conventional wisdom may also have argued that the older you get, the more risk prone you are, thus making this more young-people-playground. Add to this the generally well known fact that VCs are more willing to fund younger people’s start ups (unless you are talking serial entrepreneurs) – sometimes for dubious reasons (less shark like in negotiations with VCs, have not much to lose so will work harder..), and the “surprise” is not really surprising.
But stats show otherwise. And actually, if i look around me anecdotally – most folks i know that run their own enterprises (or for that matter, are solopreneurs or mompreneurs or owner managers) have branched out post 35 or so – this includes atleast 20% of my B school class, and ofcourse me and my partners (we really defied demographic stereotypes though! In a partnership of 4, there was only one non Indian origin, non woman, non parent – God bless you Kyung!, but we were all in our late 30s when we started)
So, really, it means what makes entrepreneurship work is not so much ageism or gender stats, it really is more attitudinal (or situational) factors. Look at it! Entrepreneurs are either:
- BORN : This is hereditary (like my friend Ravi or my NM class), or
- BRED and BAKED : These are the guys, who have always wanted to start something on their own – they join the MBA to become entrepreneurs, they have led their school groups, their ambition is life is to start up something – when they do this differs – some take some time to garner expereince under their belt before they start off on their own (my friend Avinash did this); some, specially in the tech world, have great ideas for that path breaking product/ code, and start off – in incubators/ with or without angel money..
- BUMPED : I think a bad description – but here i’m talking folks who work at normal/ traditional slots most of their lives. Ofcourse, from time to time they crib (over those glasses of single malt usually) about – “I’m working so hard for that idiot, i may as well work this hard for myself, and make pots of money” , and they have many – small and big – ideas that they keep throwing around. But one fine day, something snaps in them – it could be extreme frustration, or a realisation that this is the time. Call this mid life crisis – actually in many cases nowadays it’s also correlated with shorter tenures at single jobs (and almost no lifetime ones – think about it – my dad was at the same company from when he was 25 to when he was 60!!!), or lay-offs/ redundancies and other such truths of modern day corporate life!. These guys, though, have typically been eternally bouncing entrepreneurial ideas around – just havnt had the necessary trigger (Bump) to get them to take the plunge. I think my husband will soon join this breed :)
- BEACH BUMMERS – This is me – never had an entrepreneurial thought in my little head! Dont have any inclination/ procilivities towards it – suck at networking (that essential evil reputedly important to make startups work) – really just wanted to as Ace of Base said “lie on a beach just having fun..” But something comes along – the right time/ right place/ right set of people, — call it serendipity —- and voila, here you are – burning the midnight candle, juggling bus-dev with ops with innovation and people management – and you become, willy nilly, an entrepreneur!
I think, apart from skews towards the younger age groups in the first two sets, and the older age group in the third, age doesn’t have much of an impact on the conditions that make entrepreneurs.
You do see people arguing both sides of the case very passionately – the younger “have nothing to lose”, “can work harder”, “have passion” vs. the older “”been there done that” so have higher expereince and maturity, and better networks” argument rings out all the time.
What these guys miss is the following:
a) Passion and the ability to communicate that passion is not age dependent – it can be hallmark of the college dropout Bill Gates just as it can be that of 64 year old Col Saunders, the founder of KFC!
b) An idea is not equal to an enterprise – you can get ideas from anywhere, its the execution that matters
c) You can fill gaps in maturity and expereince with good hires if you are young (remember, While Page and Brin were < 25, Schimdt was 46, and he was HIRED!), OR, gaps in horse power and enthusiasm with younger bright sparks
d) The desire to "be your own boss" can, and should, strike you at any age!
e) Empathy and flexibility, more key defining entrepreneurial features, are again not correlated with age
Finally, the ability to solve problems continually, which is what entrepreneurs do all the time, whether you have done this before or not, you have the training for it or not, you are 18 or 80, really comes from a mind set, and the people you can gather around you to enable/ further that mind set — and THAT is what makes a guy buck macro economic trends to attain success.
I read something a while ago, and thought it apt – “An entrepreneur is a man or a woman who has: enough insights to see solutions where most people see only problems; enough creativity to create things and systems that never existed before ; a huge amount of courage to act, take risks, invest a lot of work/time/money, and sacrifice a part of his /her private life in order to create a new venture , and enough persistence and toughness to do all this over a longer period of time” ….Where is “age” in this?
So, in answer to the question – are entrepreneurs born or bred, mine always is a spoof on a famous Shakesperian quote – “Some entrepreneurs are born, some achieve entrepreneurship, and some (like me) have entrepreneurship thrust upon them” – but, whichever it is, as long as you seize the opportunity when it knocks at you, and you convert it into a “labour of love”, you will have a good chance of success…All the best!