Opinion - Commentary

Op-ed: Three things everybody believes about entrepreneurs that are completely false

Ethan Mollick, Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania
Key Points
  • Several very widespread assumptions about entrepreneurs are not true, research shows.
  • Successful entrepreneurs are actually older than most people assume.
  • Research also tends to challenge common associations people make between particular personality types and start-up success.
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in 2013. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

Close your eyes and imagine what the average founder of a startup is like. What types of people do you see? They're probably young, driven, technical geeks working with a group of friends to launch a company. They're likely modeled on some combination of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.

That view of entrepreneurs is common. It's also completely wrong.

First, consider age. Many people associate founding with youth. This is not just an amateur assumption, either. For example, Paul Graham, the founder of startup accelerator Y-Combinator, said in 2014 that "the cutoff in investors' heads is 32. After 32, they start to be a little skeptical."

Though Graham emphasizes the importance of age, research actually demonstrates that success correlates with money, contacts and experience — in other words, with a founder's resources, not youth. While novice status might allow for the fresh perspective perhaps needed for innovative disruption, older founders often have the industry know-how, financial capital, and established networks that are vital to success.

If you're an introvert or carry around some self-doubt, don't let that stop you.
Ethan Mollick
Wharton professor

Not convinced yet? You may be surprised, then, by the findings of my Wharton colleague Daniel Kim, who, with Pierre Azoulay, Benjamin Jones and Javier Miranda, studied every founder in the United States. Their research demonstrates that, rather than being outliers, founders like Reed Hastings, who started Netflix at 37, and Arianna Huffington, who launched HuffPost at 55, actually straddle the norm. In fact, they pegged the average age of founders across industries at 42, with that average actually rising when it comes to fast-growth companies like Facebook and Microsoft. Successful founders of those fast-growth firms, the researchers found, tend to fall in the 45 to 59 range.

Another common myth that comes from looking at successful founders of the past is that there is a single personality type for founders. The enduring prevalence of the Myers-Briggs "personality type" test, which scientists have demonstrated is meaningless, unfortunately underscores the pervasiveness of this myth.

However, research tends to challenge these common associations between particular personality types and start-up success. Where studies have found provisional connections, the impact is rather small and requires a match between personality and the stage, nature, and approach of the business in question. This doesn't mean that personality has no impact on startups; for example, some research indicates that successful entrepreneurs may seek more control over their lives and may have more belief in their abilities than others. Nevertheless, these factors play only a small role, and they are not confined to a single personality type. In other words, if you're an introvert or carry around some self-doubt, don't let that stop you.

You shouldn't feel constrained by popular examples of startup founders — and you don't need to be a Harvard dropout launching a company with college friends to succeed.
Ethan Mollick
Wharton professor

Finally, consider that our mental model for founders suggests starting a company with friends — as Steve Jobs started Apple with his best friend Steve Wozniak. My colleague Jason Greenberg and I recently analyzed thousands of founding teams to see which were most successful, and we discovered something surprising. The most successful founding team relationship was familial, with our data reflecting the highest survival rates in family-founded enterprises.

Our findings stand contrary to popular wisdom that family ventures may be unstable — a supposition that has gone so far as to affect the thinking of venture capitalists. Though this thinking is widespread, many of the world's largest and most famous companies are still family run, from Cargill to Tata to Koch Industries, while many others, including Walmart and Ford, still have major roles for family members.

Family businesses have a variety of advantages, including built-in trust among the founding team members. They are also better able to balance a long-term vision for the future with the need to make short-term strategy, often leading to superior financial performance. That doesn't mean that founding with your loved ones is always a good idea — our research doesn't tell us what happens to families when their businesses fail — but it is at least worth considering.

Startups hold an almost mythical place in the American dream, so it is no surprise that there are so many myths about what make them successful. The truth, however, is liberating: You shouldn't feel constrained by popular examples of startup founders, and you don't need to be an introverted Harvard dropout launching a company with college friends to succeed.

Ethan Mollick is professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and author of the forthcoming The Unicorn's Shadow: Combating the Dangerous Myths that Hold Back Startups, Founders, and Investors.