Why startups shouldn’t just be for the young

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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.

40 Comments

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iyumgeek

Younger ones made headlines and the older ones are at the 6th start-up, what happened to the first five? duds?

iyumgeek

young people made headlines and the older ones are at 6th start-up, what happened to the first five?

Vinay

I think Dan makes a great opening statement for this argument. Now in my mid-40s and in my 3rd venture, I can see that my behavior patterns are distinctly different. Jury is out on whether I’ll be successful with 40hr weeks vs. the usual 100 hr weeks of my first venture.

Marilyn Evabs

Fantastic !! … I can’t say enough in support of the joy of sharing experience through Leadership, Coaching & Mentoring.
Being > 40 is wonderful .. the scope of life broadens .. a head full of facts + experience become wisdom to work smarter not harder .. life gets richer.
Let me share one of our simple secrets .. “More haste less speed” .. brings achievement while minimizing the pitfalls of start-ups – and here I extend the definition to “Projects”.
We “oldies” will share even more if asked .. and if you’d like to achieve .. please do ask !!

Marilyn Evans
Change & Quality .. Has experience of the full project life-cycle including her own software start-up

John Harris

The goal is to get home and read your daughter a story? Perhaps it is time to rethink how many hours you put in a day. Have you made enough money to spend a little more time with your family? They grow up quickly Dan.

Lev

Most CEOs/Founders say: “This is the most important reason why I’m not prepared to spend every waking hour at work any more”. So right… instead they hire people that stay longer at work (they don’t have a life anyway)…

Matt Simpson

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

I beg to disagree. The record shows that the most esteemed gentleman, unfortunately, got pancreatic cancer & died.

State of mind **does** have an influence on cancer in the body (ref e.g., Rossi & Cheek).

Don Koscheka

Great article – and as a 50-something in a brand new start up, a bit of inspiration as well. I totally agree that my role in my new company is to attract and grow talent, young and old, that will make us all successful!

Matt

Agreed. Of course, being young can also be a metaphor, young at heart/mind or rather what you would call embracing the moment, the new, etc.

Founder @ yorapi

Age is irrelevant, I am coming up-to 40 in July this year, I still work 10-18 hrs a day when I need to, I never have a lack of energy, and I have learnt to make time for those I care for!

In-fact all I look for in people to join our team, I care about skills and more specifically results…

I don’t care if you have 1 year of experience or 30+ if you can get results why should I care if you are 18 or over 50…

I must admit the focus on accelerators looking to bring on younger and younger people into start-ups is doing a lot of highly skilled more mature founders and wanna’be founders a lot of angst..

A lot of reasons for not working with older founders is the family card, but you will find most founders that have been building and running start-ups also have figured out how to do it with a good life balance.

For example if I have to Hack for 3 days solid I can! My partner knows this is what I do. Of course, if an emergency happens family wise it has a priority but that is the same for everyone old or young, but for me its simple
Mon-Friday I work as needed and take 2-3 hrs our for family. I normally take off Sunday and half of Saturday.

You would be surprised how much time I have to get things done… its not about the time spent but the quality of work you do.

I agree that if you have never worked the hours that come with a start-up you will find it super hard, and yes it can be harder if older when doing for the first time.

Final note if a founder can not go for 6 months without worrying about bringing in any income no matter what age they should not even try until they have tha cash reserve. Yes it is more if have family, kids, mortgage but then again that means you also in theory also have more funds to support yourself and potentially more avenues of credit and support.

rant is over :)

Charlie McHenry

This economy has forced new models on all age groups. At over 60, I’ve co-founded a digital game & software entertainment company with two colleagues. Our majority stockholder & CEO is older than I am. Our third co-founder and CTO is in his mid 40’s. It sure ain’t easy, but you do what you’ve got to do.

Thomas Lukasik

>> “the vast majority of us simply don’t work as well if we drive ourselves too hard”

IMHO, if you need to “drive yourself” then something is wrong. When there is real passion, you have a very different challenge: Making yourself stop working to get some rest.

tom cannon

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.

matthew work

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

rkb9572

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.

Alex

“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.

wilcoxd

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)

james

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

…. except for that being dead part.

Cynthia A. Schulte

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

Eddie

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.

David Farquhar

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

Henry Tirebiter

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.

Matthew Wanderer

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”.

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