Business development 31 May 2016

Are you ever too old to be an entrepreneur?

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Many entrepreneurs start later in life after gaining experience in their field

As many would-be entrepreneurs often wonder, when is the best time in life to start a venture? Small Business Charter chairman and ByBox head Stuart Miller considers some well-known examples of startup founders that made it big, both early and later on in life.

I started my first company at the age of 26. Back then, entrepreneurs came in all shapes, sizes and ages. Young traders like Alan Sugar came to the fore alongside cerebral inventors like James Dyson.

Timeless legends like Richard Branson, and pioneers in their mid-forties like Black & Decker Workmate founder Ron Hickman, with principled luminaries like Anita Roddick, who famously opened her first Body Shop next door to an undertaker.  So, how long should you give it before deciding to permanently park your startup dream?

The rebellious energy of youth can come in handy

Entrepreneurs are often categorised as the rock stars of the business world. Like rebellious rockers, it is certainly true that most entrepreneurs let rip in their twenties – when time is firmly on their side. The trend is continuing, as 18-25 year olds are representing an increasing proportion of Britain’s startup CEOs.

Some of the reasons for this are obvious. Impatience and a charming disdain for convention are common traits amongst successful entrepreneurs. If you know that you will start a company one day, then there is little point in hanging around. Having a lot of energy is also important, as there’s no denying the brutal work ethic required to survive the early phases of the startup journey, which are invariably characterised by chaos. Given these demands, the physical resilience of youth is certainly helpful.

Then there is the practical reality of missing the boat in your twenties. The average age for marriage in the UK is 27 for women and 29 for men – with the first child typically arriving seven years later. At that point, there is an even longer list of reasons why starting a company (or a rock band) is a ridiculous proposition.

So if you’re still a “want-repreneur” rather than a real entrepreneur as you leave your twenties behind, are you lost to the startup world forever?

Investors recognise the value of real world experience

Investors like to back management teams with deep market knowledge. Typically, this knowledge, and the associated personal contacts that come with it, can only be acquired through years spent immersed in a sector.

The experience gained from running large corporate teams and delivering under pressure can also be invaluable to your venture as it enters the critical phase of growth. Just as valuable are the human insights that come with managing difficult situations in international markets – particularly for entrepreneurs with half an eye on building truly global businesses.

So the case for grey-haired startup CEOs is not as black and white as it seems. While at first glance the allure of youth seems conclusive, the list of middle-aged entrepreneurs who build successful companies is reassuringly impressive too.

An obvious example is the story of Harland Sanders – who famously founded Kentucky Fried Chicken in his forties and was made an actual colonel in Kentucky for his efforts. Similarly, McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc was 52 when he made his breakthrough.

It’s not only fast food that can offer a route to startup success for entrepreneurs aged over 40. Trevor Baylis was 54 when he invented the wind-up radio, whilst the lesser-known but hugely successful Steve Davies was in his forties when he re-mortgaged his home to launch asymmetric symmetry company Oxford Asymmetry – which was sold eight years later for £316m.

To add further colour to the debate, what’s the first thing that investors like to do when they back a youthful entrepreneur? Add some experience to the board, typically by way of an older chairman who has seen it all before.

Arguably, it is just as valid to reverse the question: are you ever too young to start a company? The boundless examples of teenage success – from Microsoft’s Bill Gates to WhatsApp’s Jan Koum – suggest there is little point in debating that further.

Similar questions about when is the best to time launch your startup often surface. For example, new business owners often ask whether to do an MBA before launching a venture, particularly in the absence of any formal business training. Many wonder whether to start their venture in the evenings and weekends, keeping a day job going to pay the bills until they breakeven.

The only sensible conclusion to any of these questions is that there is no right answer. Ultimately, the rules are the same regardless of age, education or personal wealth.

Stuart Miller is chairman of the Small Business Charter and CEO of ByBox. 

Read more from Stuart on the three phases of change for startup CEOs.

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