But the image of the young entrepreneur didn't hold when we looked at the data.
Past studies of high-growth entrepreneurship and age have yielded conflicting results, based in part on small and selected data sets that researchers studied.
To examine the question more definitively, we conducted an internal project at the U.S. Census Bureau. That enabled us to examine all businesses launched in the U.S. between 2007 and 2014, encompassing 2.7 million founders. We compared founder age to firm performance measures, including employment and sales growth, as well as the "exit" by acquisition or IPO.
Successful entrepreneurs are much more likely to be middle-aged, not young. For the top 0.1 percent of fastest growing new businesses in the U.S., the average age of the founder in the business' first year was 45.
Similarly, middle-aged founders dominate successful exits. By our estimation, a 50-year-old founder is 1.8 times more likely than a 30-year-old founder to create one of the highest growth firms. Founders in their early 20s have the lowest likelihood of building a top-growth firm.
Why would entrepreneurs get better with age? It's not clear, but we have a few theories. More seasoned entrepreneurs may draw on greater experience in management or deeper industry-specific knowledge. They may also have greater financial resources and more relevant social networks to leverage the founder's business idea. For example, our study showed that prior work experience in the startup's specific industry more than doubled the chance of an upper-tail growth success.
Even some of the most famous young founders tend to peak toward middle age. For example, Steve Jobs and Apple found their blockbuster innovation with the iPhone, released when Jobs was 52.