40 Comments

Summary:

Ignore the myths perpetuated by Silicon Valley: you don’t have to be young to find startup success. In fact, says Songkick CTO Dan Crow, older entrepreneurs can bring experience and focus that young companies desperately need.

crybaby

Startups are for the young and hungry. You’re thirty? You’re too old. If you haven’t made your first million by 25, you’ve missed your chance. If you’re not working 130 hours a week, you’ll never create the next Google.

One of the key myths of startups, especially in Silicon Valley, is that they are for the young. Larry Page and Sergey Brin dropped out of Stanford in their 20s to start Google. Steve Jobs started Apple from his parents’ garage after he dropped out of college. Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook at university and is now a multibillionaire at 27 years old.

But look behind the headlines, and you’ll find a cadre of experienced, older entrepreneurs who find ways to balance the hectic pace of startup life with other priorities such as friends, family and, well, a life. I’m comfortably into my 40s and on my sixth startup. Having spent 10 years in the pressure cooker of Silicon Valley — at startups as well as Google and Apple, I have some perspective on how to continue to be a successful startup entrepreneur as you get older.

An experienced entrepreneur brings a different perspective.

Paul Graham says:

“In a startup, things seem great one moment and hopeless the next. And by next I mean a couple hours later.”

An important lesson you learn after a couple of startups is that many of the crises you encounter turn out not to be quite as desperate as they seem in the heat of the moment. After going through that a few times, you learn that staying calm helps the team stay calm — which makes everyone better at resolving the problem. You also learn, hopefully, to distinguish the problems that seem critical from the ones that actually do threaten your company’s future and require urgent action.

Many startups, especially in Silicon Valley, have a macho culture of working extremely long hours. I vividly recall a long stretch of consecutive 100+ hour weeks at Apple early in my career — which came on top of a 3 hour commute to San Francisco. The quality of my work noticeably declined, and it took me months to get my focus and energy back afterwards.

There are a few, apparently superhuman, people who can working extremely long hours over sustained periods without compromising what they do.

Steve Jobs, for example, worked prodigious hours without it appearing to affect him at all. But the vast majority of us simply don’t work as well if we drive ourselves too hard. It’s much smarter to make sure that you — and those you work with — have a decent work-life balance. You learn to prioritize what you spend your time on at work, and focus on the things where you can make a difference: working smarter, not harder.

As you get older, what you care about changes.

I have a family now and it’s incredibly important to me that I can get home in time to read a story to my daughters most evenings. This is the most important reason why I’m not prepared to spend every waking hour at work any more. But I believe that the accumulated experience I bring, and the ability to focus on the things that matter, compensates for this.

Most engineers start out believing they have to solve every problem they encounter themselves. One thing you learn is that is a limit to how much work you can get done alone, even if you can work 130 hours a week.

At some point, in order to have a larger impact, you have to figure out how to lead a team of people: five engineers will get so much more done than you working alone, no matter how good you are. And if you can guide a team to success, you can be more ambitious and will create better products.

The thing is, it’s simply fun to work in startups. You work with smart, passionate people who want to create great products that will change the world. The excitement and commitment is infectious.

So if you can bring relevant experience, figure out how to spend your time wisely and lead teams to success, you can be an effective startup entrepreneur — no matter what your age.

Dan Crow is the CTO of Songkick. He was previously a technical lead/manager at Google, co-founder of Blurb; Chief Scientist at Unicru and engineer at Apple.

You’re subscribed! If you like, you can update your settings

  1. Definitely. There was an interesting research about it last year: http://techcrunch.com/2011/05/28/peak-age-entrepreneurship/ providing real data instead of popular media stories and anecdotes.

  2. Matthew Wanderer Friday, April 6, 2012

    Another meme I find a bit confounding is the moniker “serial entrepreneur”. That term is, for many of us, sort of like saying someone with more than one child is a “serial parent”.

  3. Henry Tirebiter Friday, April 6, 2012

    Well now, am a serial mongamist, “cereal” comedian, startup veteran and older guy wwho stays calm and brings the voice of reason to conversations when other heads melt down. Just a knack, the gift of gab if you will and the ability to listen. The formula for success is truly the wisdom of knowing not to have an agenda and when to commit to the right moves. Experience is key there – age and wisdom aren’t available in youth in quantity; that is earned at the school of mistakes, something you have to be willing to make and admit to learn.

  4. David Farquhar Friday, April 6, 2012

    I am 53 and now on my 12th start-up and still loving it

  5. “Steve Jobs, for example, worked prodigious hours without it appearing to affect him at all.”

    …. except for that being dead part.

    1. Cynthia A. Schulte james Friday, April 6, 2012

      Exactly, what I was thinking!! I think there is a toll taken on ourselves with the extreme hours…

    2. Yes, very good point. In the autobiography about Jobs, wasn’t he at one point commuting between Apple (Cupertino) and Pixar (East Bay) and making stops along the way to get pain killers for his kidney stones? Just because Jobs had good food from the chefs he hired at Apple (vegetarian etc.) isn’t to say that he didn’t negatively affect his health by not getting enough sleep or exercise. How many macho young entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley or otherwise spend time regularly exercising and getting a decent amount of sleep? In fact, wouldn’t it be in a VC’s or angel investor’s best interest that the companies who they are investing ensure their key employees / founders are healthy regardless of age? Did anyone ever notice (as I have) that some of these young whipper snappers have bags under their eyes. Just look at Michael Arrington, he appears to be overweight and bags under his eyes.

  6. BUT HOW CAN I GET YOU TO WORK FOR SWEAT EQUITY FOR 6 MONTHS OF 80 HOUR WEEKS WHEN YOU WHINE ABOUT YOUR MORTGAGE, OLD MAN??! (/sarcasm)

  7. “five engineers will get so much more done than you working alone, no matter how good you are”

    I’m reserving my doubts – especially for some sets of five engineers (and some examples of “you”). It’s a known opinion a “star” engineer (in software?) worth (some big number) of “mediocre” ones.

  8. matthew work Friday, April 6, 2012

    “Steve Jobs, for example, worked prodigious hours without it appearing to affect him at all” ummm….. really? except that he’s dead.

    1. Ummm…. he had pancreatic cancer. The last I saw there was no link between hard work and cancer. My uncle died of it and he valued his family above all else. Very insensitive comment.

  9. not all factors are equal. Age is irrelevant or relevant. Energy expended does not equal results. If I took on Michael Johnson in a foot race, I could work around the clock to win, and it would be to no avail as his talent would blow me out from the starting gate. IN ” Start up speak ” SERIAL = Generalist, or in fact associated with many deals, some were exits for profit, and others simply died or more likely ran out of money. Many were not ‘start-ups’, but ‘concepts’ or, if beyond that stage -‘seed money’. ‘Start up’ is when investors pay in and company has a money making product or service – and has proven it. Balance and proven experience is tough to match, simply due to time in work environment. Thomas Edison said “it only took 40,000 failures to succeed in creating light bulb”. Balance is crucial for free flow thought and good judgment and we all are paid for our judgments.

Comments have been disabled for this post