The Aging Entrepreneur

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:

  1. "everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;
  2. 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;
  3. 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.
  4. 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."

 

Marc asks:

"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…

 

34 thoughts on “The Aging Entrepreneur

  1. very astute. Conclusion: don’t ever get married or get into a long-term relationship; keep hooking up and going for the next peak

    1. Amen, Rick! It’s aamzing how many companies waste their money on piffle like this.For the sake of small biz everywhere, I hope they listen to you. 😉

  2. "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."Your assumption here is that the entrepreneur will be the one who is "hands on" developing and building the product. Did you ever see Richard Branson donning his overalls and digging his tool box out of his garden shed when he decided to start Virgin Atlantic?I think we have to make a distinction between a "new" entrepreneur i.e. an individual who is starting-up their first venture and established entrepreneurs who continue to be creative and inovative throughout their "careers".In which case it might be more interesting to look for patterns in the ages of people starting new businesses rather than entrepreneurs par ce.

  3. While it’s true that the need to impress other people is an important drive in many things, including starting a business, and also true that at a young age the need to impress the other sex is the biggest of all, let’s not forget about the need to impress your buddies.When very young, you can earn your bragging rights by reaching "third base" earlier than your peers, later it’s by dating better looking women, but what do you do when you and the rest of the guys are all happily married? Start a business and sell it for millions, that’s what you do!In other words, I’m not sure that growing old diminishes your drive.Another point – it isn’t marriage that swallows up all of your time. It’s children. If you’re married with no children yet (like me) you can still spend 16 hours per day on your new start up.

  4. I think your take on sublimated sex drive is huge, but many do not want to admit it to themselves.Living in the Bay Area now for the past few months & amidst the startup culture out here — there seems to be an unwritten rule that you can’t be in it "for the chicks, man".In SoCal, sure, being rich or famous & getting some trophy wife seems a lot more socially acceptable.

  5. Having a supportive-understanding partner/spouse, if there must be one, is crucial. That, and an itching paranoia or desire.

  6. Great article. For those of us who are married and have kids, there is alot of disturbing truth here. I believe there is an element missing: the "inventiveness" factor. If you’re one who likes to invent in your sleep, you can escape the gravity of the other countervailing elements – but only if you have the resources to deliver on the dream.

  7. I’ve often wondered about the distinction between poets, mathemeticians and physicists on the one hand and historians and the ilk on the other. I always felt that part of the issue was the willingness to be iconoclastic. If you don’t know what the rules are, it’s a lot easier to question the rules. I think part of it is that sometimes it just takes time to figure stuff out–that certainly seems true of history and, to a lesser extent, biology. Also, you keep forgetting about the issue of energy–younger people have it and older people don’t–and energy makes a huge difference.I’m curious though where would economists fit into the paradigm?

  8. Nice post, Naval; I’m talking about the latest one on entrepreneurship and age. Intriguing and fostering deep thought, the subject is a vital one. I thought I’d save some time, in expressing my opinion on the issue, by sending you my response (last week or so) to Marc’s questions — word for word as follows:Before I answer your questions, let me point out – for the sake of not forgetting to return to this point – that modulo the splendid opinions of the two scientists, one element is missing. It is this: there is neither a mention of what constitutes experience (Oscar Wilde calls it the glorified name we give to our mistakes) nor is there a reference to the time (portion of one’s life) it takes to accrue some domain of experience. I will return to these.Now let me answer your questions; do bear my above incomplete critique in mind, knowing the suspense is vital to driving home my point. You ask “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?” A break down of your question, within context, is needed. In other words, your question is “Is entrepreneurship fostered more by enthusiasm or experience?” Clearly, one would see that there is no one right answer to this. Don’t get me wrong…it is likely that entrepreneurship has a lot to do with curiosity which can be likened to enthusiasm. But what about execution? It may have more to do with experience. To me, entrepreneurship has different stages, all with which you in particular are probably likely to be familiar. I am talking of the stages of curiosity, conception, belief, and execution. You will see that one can be curios without experience; one can conceive without experience, one can believe without experience, but some level of experience is needed for the smallest deed of fine execution. Furthermore, both belief (conviction) and execution may be functions of past success. Quickly, we see that entrepreneurship, or at least good entrepreneurship, is a broad spectrum akin to both enthusiasm and experience; so it is both like poetry and philosophy. Better yet, entrepreneurship is a peculiar habit. Back to the issue in the second paragraph…what constitutes “experience”? I thought Beard would have addressed it, or perhaps he did. Minus the obvious facts we know, is it really true that an older person has more experience than a younger one? My opinion is that the single fixed resource humanity has is “time”. It should thus be the overruling desideratum for determining experience. If I am a 5 year old kid who spends 10 hours a day on the piano, by the time I am 10, I would have spent 5 * 365 * 10 hours (or 18250 hours) of experience on the keyboard. Observe that going by Dr Simonton, these hours consist both of right and wrong key strokes – productivity – which adds to my experience. Now, say I am a 12 year old kid who spends 2 hours a day on the piano, I will be 37 years old before I accrue the same “total productivity” (hours) as the 10 year old kid. So…won’t it be fair to say “experience is a function of time?” Well…if the answer is yes, then you will agree with me that if youth has to do with enthusiasm, then it is likely that young persons – because of their passion/enthusiasm – spend inordinate lengths of time on things they love. This immediately calls Beard’s assertion to question. In other words, perhaps enthusiasm and experience, when plotted on a chart, could actually have similar periods of waxing and waning, or crests and troughs as is often said in physics. Contrary to Beard’s postulate, could it be that enthusiasm and experience are not inversely related? Now, let’s think of this: many extremely hard working or curious people don’t get enough sleep at night – either because they are working or thinking constantly if not physically working. Over years and years, this means the amount of time some persons spend with their eyes open (experience) far exceeds the amount of time their older counterparts (normal and less enthusiastic) spend with their eyes open. Is it a surprise that geniuses, even when young, get so little rest?

  9. Very thought-provoking post and discussion. And this theory could apply not only to entrepreneurship, but to generally being an interesting person. Many people as they get older, do less interesting things and become less interesting people. One of my favorite Renaissance historians, Ken Bartlett says, our lives are our art. He makes the point that the spirit of the Renaissance is the search for self-discovery, the ability to re-invent and re-imagine oneself. A part of us can and maybe should remain self-obsessed and adolescent. Some of the greatest people in history had that ability to re-invent themselves because of their obsession with themselves and making their lives into "art". Churchill in his life progressed from: prisoner of war, best-selling novelist, naval admiral, disgraced and fired naval admiral, biographer and politician. Ben Franklin in his life was a print shop apprentice, clandestine proverb writer, foreign diplomat, drafter of the declaration of indepenndence, inventor of bifocals and the lightening rod, creator of the first volunteer fire brigades, composer (music for the glass harmonica) and postmaster general. If we can wipe out the distinctions between our professional work and our personal quests, and hazard ourselves to reinvention, we can remain interesting and productive people.

  10. Entrepreneurship can be significantly affected by interactions amongst people. The aging of people will definitely impact the way they assess risk especially if they are in economically unfavorable situations. An snwer to a question about age depends on too many factors and you really cannot just look at age. Elad above mentions that he/she has no kids and that’s going to have a huge impact on what you can do.I had a terrible dream last nite where my family and I were being attacked and it would have been way different if it were just me. I’m not sure if people were designed to be full time entrepreneurs but then again i’m not sure if we were designed to be married. I think in due time genetics and neuroscience can help shed more light on entrepreneurship as we can gather meta data about the subject. I guess I don’t fully understand the point of the article and whether it’s about the psychology of entrepreneurship or if elder people should reignite the passions of younger people by following their desires such as trying to impress the opposite (or same) sex. People in general may want to stand out. I think the question heavily depends on cultures also. Chinese may have it different than we do. Those are issues generally relevant on the macroscale. On the microscale, to simply summarize, inspiration can occur at any age. And it’s really about inspiration which varies for everyone. Motivation is key to any success as you said about the more ‘bat swings’ you take which is fueled by motivation, and its the neuroscience of these dopamine interactions in your brain which can be triggered by so many different events that its hard to truly know what did it. But for the most part your article hits the mark.In our blog we talk about "The Fringe" http://www.revupnet.com/2007/09/05/the-fringe/ The article discusses the compulsion by which people are driven and it’d be interesting to see how the fringe changes for people as they age.

  11. I’m surprised that you think "experience" is a negative factor. Whatabout people who have had success in their career so far, includingthose who have already been successful entrepreneurs?Once your kids are off at college, you have a lot more time to spare.But I disagree that you need to be working very long, extended hoursto succeed. At my second startup, we all decided to work forty hourweeks, and we were very successful.You have an optimistic view of the sex life of long-married people.It depends on the relationship.Having a spouse can be a big advantage, both practically (someone tohelp with the chores) and psychologically (someone to be supportive).Even if you’re no longer trying to attract chicks, you’re still tryingto impress your peers.

  12. I have an opposite take on this and would argue that married men with young kids make better entrepreneurs because:* They get sex at home and don’t have to waste time in chasing pussy and instead focus on the product* A supporting spouse takes care of all the mundane aspects of life such as laundry, cooking, house-keeping etc* Young kids are very unpredictable in their behavior, so is entrepreneurship. If you can be patient with kids, you can be a good entrepreneur dealing with various aspects of business* After a stressful day at work, playing with kids provides a wonderful outlet* Network with your kids friends parents at soccer games. Chances of running into investors, entrepreneurs, etc are high

  13. I really like your attempt to quantify this issue. Very interesting. Without an extensive diatribe, IMHO it boils down to fresh perspective and recognition of the psychological conditioning we all receive as we grow older. The young tend to naturally have a fresh perspective and less conditioning. They have not been "institutionalized" or conditioned as much by schooling, entrepreneur experience, job expreience, etc … A good start to understand psychological conditioning is the book "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion" by R. Cialdini (I have no vested interest in the book or author). Even at an older age an awareness of our conditioning can lead to success in innovation. I am 39 and I have several patents and publications under my belt of which 95% were done after the age of 30. I have now turned my sights to an entrepreneur endeavour which is coasting along. It’s an internet startup. Internet is for the young! I’m not so sure. Age is no issue as long as you recongize your conditioning and scutinize your own critical thinking.

  14. I’m late to this due to working on my 8th – 9th – nth? startup and deep into my sixth decade. We’re nearing term sheet land, again, and I thought I’d bone up on the latest creativity from the young VCs.Some people will ALWAYS be entrepreneurs, ’til they day the die. Others will never, and were never, able to be entrepeneurs, risk takers, etc.Hang out with young engineers and wannabe entrepreneurs in China and you’ll quickly discover there is a dearth of 40-60 year old mentors due to the Cultural Revolution literally crushing their spirit and opportunity. Certainly, there are different types of risks as you age, but a healthy combination of aged wisdom and youthful curiosity may be embodied in 20 year olds or 60 year olds, you just never know.As to the Sand Hill Road crowd, there is definite age discrimination. I loved Miles’ comment that "VCs are ageing entrepreneurs who’ve learned to outsource their creativity." What creativity? I’ve been fortunate to meet some of the guys that funded Fairchild, and they’ll admit their skill wasn’t creation of anything but wealth, and that was the result of some lucky breaks. Bob Noyce admitted to me that he was a lucky guy to be in the right place at the right time, and he meant it with all humility of another midwesterner. A few years earlier and he’d have been just another brilliant dweeb in a short sleeve white shirt with a pocket protector destined to work on secret military projects. I know some VCs from the bubble era who were on the management teams of startups, and thanks to their pedigrees were able to shift fron non-risktaking founders to becoming non-risktaking VCs. Kind of like "Entrepreneurs in Residence," but with a carry.Finally, I remember when I was turning 27 and realized that I would never be a great mathematician, physicist or astronomer (ignoring that I never wanted to become one). I’d invented a few things and had difficulty raising enough capital to turn the corner with them. Set your wayback machine to the days of hobby computers (pre-personal computers). At the time you got an MBA to work in a boring job on Wall Street, not to become an entrepeneur in Silicon Valley, and the vision to have fun inventing rather than become a tool of capital was pretty much a hippie ethos.I also realized that would always be ready to take a calculated risk, jump out of a perfectly good plane with a bunch of other people I trust, each with the equivalent of an armload of dacron, some nylon string, thread and needle, and try to build a parachute, or better yet, and paraglider, on which we could catch a thermal and soar to new heights. If you’re not prepared to do that, you don’t get to be an entrepreneur.May you always be curious, always be willing to take a calculated risk, always be creative, and always find ways to have fun doing it. I hum it to "Forever Young" by The Pretenders, but you may prefer a newer group.

  15. A good everlasting article which would be debated time without end. We are driven by our primal instincts : SEX, FEEDING and SHELTER. Highly productive people are just like all other people only that they have more motivation, which is driven these primal instincts.This is why many of the most innovative people in the world ( innovation by means of creating a new solution to an old problem and pursuing that solution until it has mass acceptance ), had weird sex lives.

  16. I am always sceptical of relying too much on the sex-drive answer to questions of human motivation. I agree that this may be an explanation that fits for some people, but I don’t think it is necessarily a universal causal factor.First, note how many other successful entrepreneurs in other industries take long periods of time to build and divest their companies (if they do the latter at all). Real estate, finance, consumer products, and operating and manufacturing businesses of all types. These people, I’ll bet, are highly DRIVEN and focused people — especially the super-succesful ones. While the sex-factor may have been an inssue in the intial energy impetus, it was likely not one as they got older, more wealthy (even if only on paper)…etc.RATHER, I think the age factor of silcon valley entrepreneurs is related to to the general newness of what’s being produced out there. To be successful, people need to be highly creative and risk-taking — it’s uncharted wilderness and you need a lot of creativity to create a path. Entrepreneurs in all industries that start companies in their 20s and 30s have a serious ability to handle risk — this is not unique to sex-deprived 20-somethings in palo alto. And DRIVE is not unique to sex-deprived men either. Deep psychological need to prove oneself and defeat opponents has more causes than sex — it is liekly mired in a childhood that produces an inferiority comples (mixed with hyper-intelligence/capability). I’m sure a psychologist could give other goodepxlanations too.As Marc said, Silicon valley has more young, serial entrepreneurs now than it used to, but this might be a factor of a maturation of the industry exit strategies and a vast expansion of both markets and access to them. I.e. its an exogenous cause.

  17. I agree with Reagan: "I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience."Someone pointed out that Richard Branson wasn’t seen in overalls with a toolbox, when he started Virgin Atlantic. So true! The experience which is most important, imo is cumulative and if you keep the right mindset… you get better at doing business and building ventures every year! If you take care of yourself and maintain your health, that’s the primary limit – along with the mentioned "distractions". Simple. Just my two cents. -steve

  18. Forever Young is by Bob Dylan… Pretenders indeed.Speaking of which, Bob Dylan is a great example of a poet / musician… who just happened to get his first Grammy at age 60. Yet if he hadn’t started young, he’d never be the "old" he is. And talk about a guy who’s embodied "more hits from more swings".I buy the sex-drive, alpha-male based view of this. I also buy the "not hunting pussy, wife taking care of things" view of this. I also will show this post to my girlfriend (I’ve got 2 children) to let her know just who she’s dating.Ben Franklin is the ideal model for this, but he’s really in the mode of philosopher / historian.Finally, starting young: if it gets you one thing for sure, it gets you more swings, which is more experience.A possible approach to this for the aging (like me: 31) is to focus on ideas only (patents) and not businesses. Ideas themselves are easy to generate.

  19. The assumption seems to be that the entrepreneur is always male, and the opposite sex is always female. And the supportive spouse will take care of all the mundane aspects of life, such as housekeeping? Would that be a wife? The post wasn’t sexist, but some of the comments certainly are.

  20. Enzo started Ferrari when he was 40 The Internet is spinning off pioneer opportunities at an extraordinary rate. This favors the young as pioneering has for centuries. As the Internet matures wisdom takes over, which favors the older. This is human nature at work. The young are bold, and the old lead. The Internet is experiencing adolescence. There is plenty of time to swing at the ball as often as possible. For those of lucky enough to swing we are playing an incredible game. However, this game is beginning to change. As more content, services, and apps swamp the web People will weed out what is important and the landscape will change radically (likely by the young pioneers themselves as they age).In my opinion Intellectual Property will become more valuable, social applications designed to build community and unite people will spawn new business applications to support them (the success of salesforce.com is just the beginning). Wisdom will kick in (get ready).

  21. Now that I’m in my 40s, I’m actually less embarrassed by public failures. When I was in my 20s, I wasn’t aware I was publicly embarrassing myself.

  22. What a wonderful paper!As a 50 year old "Hollywood Author", stumbling upon this site by pure happenstance at 8:30 in the evening on a cold snowy night in Colorado has given me a sudden newfound wealth of dialogues and opinions from as wide a variety of incredibly intelligent people as I have ever encountered, and I will try not to plagiarize anyone as I continue reading through your wonderful site.All too often I find the internet to be a vapid wasteland with regard to signs of intelligent life.Perhaps I am too old.But I catch on fast.And your site is helping.thanksMichael D. Fodor.ps. I realize from looking further, that you don’t exactly get a barrage of postings here, and that my 2 postings this night may seem foolish, a day late and a dollar short.Nevertheless, I appreciate find your website.Happy Holidays to You and Yours.

  23. You say that the odds of a hit or a miss don’t change over time. Looking at your bio, I was wondering: have you ever had a hit? If not, why should I seek your funding?

  24. Thanks Julius. Best of luck in your eernepternurial ventures. Remember a dream is just a dream but a goal is a dream with a plan and a deadline (read that in a fortune cookie). 

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