The young generation have a zeal that’s both impressive and lazy. Not that the older generation do not. But there’s something about the quality of experience, wisdom, and the right amount of patience an older entrepreneur has, that a young entrepreneur just doesn’t.
People over 35 are more likely to start a business—and much more likely to succeed at it.
We all know today’s script for entrepreneurial success: A super-bright college student, impatient with classwork, drops out to pursue his big idea. Venture-capital funders chase after him, and he gathers smart pals around him to launch his startup. Sensational growth soon follows for the company—and riches for its founders—and the youth-driven innovation economy notches yet another success.
It’s a powerful narrative, and it has shaped lots of thinking about how to spark economic growth and prosperity. Many universities now boast programs for keeping budding entrepreneurs on campus, while federal, state and local governments spend some $2 billion a year on various entrepreneurship incubators and training programs—all in the hopes of identifying the next Mark Zuckerberg.
But what if we’ve got the story wrong? What if we’re looking for entrepreneurs at the wrong point in their careers—and paying a price for it economically?
‘Inspiration for entrepreneurs usually comes not from a college program but from what they’ve learned in previous jobs.’
One reason for the prevalence of older entrepreneurs is that it takes some time for people to recognize that their destiny is to start a company. Their inspiration usually comes not from a college program teaching them generic entrepreneurship skills but from what they’ve learned in previous jobs.
Middle-aged entrepreneurs don’t just bring more experience; they also are more capable of self-financing their startups. Entrepreneurs in their 40s are generally free of student debt and are more likely to have a working spouse with health insurance, factors that further reduce the risks associated with new ventures.
‘Most managers just don’t see the entrepreneurs right under their noses.’
A more strategic approach to encouraging entrepreneurship would recognize the demographic reality of who really starts businesses in the country or out. We shouldn’t be carried away by glamorous (and inevitably rare) tales of youthful success in Silicon Valley.
How to help aspiring midcareer entrepreneurs? Universities should offer continuing education in emerging technologies, as well as noncredit courses in practical subjects such as computer programming, advertising and industrial design. More could also copy the co-op programs of a handful of engineering schools, where students alternate between semesters on campus and working in companies. Local business incubators should be restyled from hip communal working spaces for young people to office arrangements more suited to midcareer entrepreneurs.
So many entrepreneurs are devoted to the companies where they once worked. But most managers just don’t see the entrepreneurs right under their noses. One reason is they think that only young people can start companies.
But really, older entrepreneurs do it better.