Entrepreneurs

New research busts the myth of the 20-something start-up founder

The popular notion is that start-ups are born in college dorm rooms and from hoodie-wearing 20-year-olds like Mark Zuckerberg. The reality, however, is quite different. Individuals turn to entrepreneurship throughout their lives.

Consider Arianna Huffington. Now 66, the media mogul and entrepreneur launched her first media company, The Huffington Post, in May 2005 in her 50s. She launched her second media company,Thrive Global, a few weeks ago.

Almost a third of startup founders are over 40, according to a recently released survey of more than 700 founders from First Round, a seed stage venture capital firm which also hosts events and offers resources to help startup founders launch their companies.

Arianna Huffington launched her namesake media company in her 50s.
Arianna Huffington launched her namesake media company in her 50s.

Of the 700 founders who responded to the First Round's recently released survey:

  • Twenty percent are in their 20s.
  • Three percent are between the ages of 21 and 25.
  • 17 percent are between the ages of 26 and 30.
  • About half are in their 30s.
  • 32 percent are over 40.
  • Almost 10 percent are in their 50s.

"Myths abound about the young entrepreneurs who dreamed up crazy ideas while in their dorm room, raised millions of dollars in venture capital, and started billion-dollar businesses. But these are just the outliers," says Vivek Wadhwa, vice president of innovation and research at Singularity University, fellow at Stanford Law School, and director of research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University, in a piece for PBS Newshour.

"The lesson here is that ideas come from need; understanding of need comes from experience; and experience comes with age." -Vivek Wadhwa, director of research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University

In his own research, Wadwa has found that:

  • Twice as many successful entrepreneurs are over 50 as under 25.
  • Twice as many are over 60 as under 20.
  • Three-quarters of successful entrepreneurs bring a half-dozen years of related industry experience to the table.

Young founders tend to get an out-sized amount of attention from Silicon Valley investors. The average age of an entrepreneur funded by the esteemed Y Combinator is 29, according to the incubator's website.

However, as boomers get older, they are shouldering up the average age of entrepreneurs. In 2015, 24 percent of new entrepreneurs were between 55 and 64 years old, according to the most recent study of the start-up landscape by entrepreneurship organization The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Twenty years earlier, only 15 percent of new businesses were started by members of the same age group.

"age, and the experience that comes with it, is correlated with entrepreneurial success."

"The lesson here is that ideas come from need; understanding of need comes from experience; and experience comes with age," writes Wadhwa.

The Founder Institute, an idea-stage accelerator and startup launch program with chapters in over 120 cities worldwide, has done similar research. It also concludes that age, and the experience that comes with it, is correlated with entrepreneurial success.

"Older age has shown in the data to correlate with more successful entrepreneurs up to the age of 40, after which it has limited or no impact," writes Adeo Ressi, CEO of the Founder Institute, in a post for the technology blog TechCrunch.

"We theorize that the combination of successful project completion skills with real world experience helps older entrepreneurs identify and address more realistic business opportunities."