Entrepreneurship and Youth


There has been some interesting discussion of late about the relationship between youth and successful entrepreneurship. It started with a from-the-hip post by Fred Wilson (which he later elaborated on).

After looking at the chart posted on Valleywag, it got me wondering about how old a fella has to be before he ought to get out of the business of startups.

After reading Fred’s musings and the (damn insightful) blog entry by Clay Shirky, I feel (at the ripe ol’ age of 35) less anxious about the whole thing. Of course, I might just be feeling young because I took the last couple of days off to pal around with my 70 year old father.

Clay states:

I’m old enough to know a lot of things, just from life experience. I know that music comes from stores. I know that you have to try on pants before you buy them. I know that newspapers are where you get your political news and how you look for a job. I know that if you want to have a conversation with someone, you call them on the phone. I know that the library is the most important building on a college campus. I know that if you need to take a trip, you visit a travel agent.

In the last 15 years or so, I’ve had to unlearn every one of those things and a million others. This makes me a not-bad analyst, because I have to explain new technology to myself first — I’m too old to understand it natively. But it makes me a lousy entrepreneur.

“A Lot of Knowledge Is A Dangerous Thing”

One thing that struck me about the “unlearnings” that Clay brings up is that they are pretty idea-centric. That is to say, these are the sort of learnings that could keep you, as an entrepreneur, from hitting upon the “big idea”. As I’ve mentioned before (liberally quoting from folks who are smarter than I am), ideas aren’t necessarily in short supply. While I’m sure many startups fail for lack of a good idea, I’d wager the majority fail from poor execution. Methodologies, strategies, and staffing levels that work at Fortune 500 companies simply don’t fly in a small company. The careful modeling, planning, and PowerPoint wrangling that you learn in business school really isn’t a great way to invest your time when your business model might need to change dramatically in a month or two. And I’d wager that the more experienced you are (and the more confident you are in your hard-won wisdom), the less likely you’re going to be able to adapt to working in a small business environment.

I want to explore this a bit more, but (given that I’m buried under a pile of email) it’ll have to wait for another blog post.

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  • I believe the Buddhist’s have a saying for this called “beginner’s mind”. From what I gather, the theory is quite similar to what you’re stating here. As a beginner, one isn’t set in the “that’s the way business is done” mindset.

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