Can older people be great entrepreneurs?
Marc Andreesen has a great post on this age-old question. In part I, he’s digging through the data. Some of his observations are powerful and worth summarizing:
"Generally, productivity — output — rises rapidly from the start of a career to a peak and then declines gradually until retirement.
This peak in productivity varies by field, from the late 20s to the early 50s, for reasons that are field-specific.
Precocity, longevity, and output rate are linked. "Those who are precocious also tend to display longevity, and both precocity and longevity are positively associated with high output rates per age unit." High producers produce highly, systematically, over time.
The odds of a hit versus a miss do not increase over time. The periods of one’s career with the most hits will also have the most misses. So maximizing quantity — taking more swings at the bat — is much higher payoff than trying to improve one’s batting average.
Intelligence, at least as measured by metrics such as IQ, is largely irrelevant."
I went through an evolution of sorts on this topic.
I started with a variation of the Beard Hypothesis (enthusiasm decreases with age but experience increases, and there’s an optimum cross-over point). This is the easiest viewpoint as you get older and look back at some of your earlier crazier ideas, but notice that that older crowd is very risk-averse. Douglas Adams had a great take on it:
- "everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;
- anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;
- anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.
- Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are."
I then moved on to Dean Simonton’s observations, beautifully covered in Marc’s article. My thinking was driven by books like "The Black Swan," "Fooled by Randomness," DeVany’s analysis of Hollywood Economics and Home-Run Hitting, and a casual observation of how Evolution creates things (massive trial and error). Basically, the number of swings at bat, poems attempted, paintings painted, etc. determine the success rate. The more you try, the more you learn, the faster you iterate, the better you get, and the more chances that you have of being productive. Your outcome scales more with the number of bets than the size of the bets. As the violinist Pablo De Sarasate put it, "For 37 years I’ve practiced 14 hours a day, and now they call me a genius. "
Now I prefer a slightly different hypothesis. More of the creative instinct is driven by the sublimated sex drive and the desire to attract a mate than we give it credit for. And more of it is squelched by the demands of family than anything else. An extreme take on it is presented by Kanazawa:
"Scientists tend to ‘desist’ from scientific research upon marriage, just like criminals desist from crime upon marriage."
"So here’s my first challenge: to anyone who has an opinion on the role of age and entrepreneurship — see if you can fit your opinion into this model!"
When you are young, hungry, and single, you have
- huge amounts of free time (more swings at the ball)
- less to lose (more swings)
- enthusiasm (more likely to swing)
- sublimated sex drive (more likely to swing to stand out from your peers).
As you age, you have
- less free time, more family demands, larger social networks (less swings)
- more to lose (public embarrassment in front of an established social circle means you don’t want to start anything fresh) (less swings)
- experience (if you’re probably going to miss, why bother swinging) (less swings)
- fulfilled sex drive (have sex rather than swing)
"And here’s my second challenge: is entrepreneurship more like poetry, pure mathematics, and theoretical physics — which exhibit a peak age in one’s late 20s or early 30s — or novel writing, history, philosophy, medicine, and general scholarship — which exhibit a peak age in one’s late 40s or early 50s? And how, and why?"
Unfortunately for an aging me, anecdotal evidence aside, entrepreneurship favors the young.
The difference between poetry, pure math, theoretical physics, and novel writing, history, philosophy, medicine, scholarship, is that the former set requires huge (multi-year) intense, focused, almost isolated blocks of free time, whereas the latter set can be picked up and put down and resumed later without too much cost. The first set comprises problems that are solved by an emotional state (poetry, painting), by loading a very difficult single framework into your head (math, physics, coding), and / or competition (driven by sex drive and time-sensitive). The latter set are more rational, are systems problems rather than point problems, and don’t have time-sensitive competition.
Modern entrepreneurship, especially web entrepreneurship, is extremely competitive / time sensitive, requires enormous amounts of iteration even within a single product life-cycle, and often requires solving many challenging technical and business problems one after the other in a public view (with the opposite sex watching). So, it favors the young and single.
Which is not to say that one can’t do it if one is older and settled down. Mathematician Paul Erdos was famous for his prioritizing his work above all else (he remained single, by the way). There are many older successful entrepreneurs who spend tremendous amounts of time away from their families.
…and the rest give up and just become VCs…