I recently had the opportunity to attend an EIT Digital online investor-startup match-making marathon event.
EIT Digital, by the way, is Europe’s leading digital innovation and entrepreneurial education organisation driving digital transformation that, amongst other activities, runs an EU-wide accelerator programme that internationalises, supports and mentors tech startups all the way to Series A-B funding.
At this event I had the opportunity to watch and listen to around 15-20 mainly Dutch, Greek and Italian startups pitching at various levels of product maturity. But besides listening in awe to the brilliant ideas being pitched there were a couple of observations I made that particularly struck me.
Off the top of my head I would say that the average age of the founders pitching their startup project was probably late thirties-early forties. I actually noticed that in at least one case the founder was in his mid-fifties, and in another case a veritable silver back in his early sixties.
The second observation: many of the founders had several years of experience in the corporate world behind them, often wise in positions of responsibility; others in academic research, typically with a specialisation in the particular sector or technology.
This clearly flies in the face of the widest of false perception, including by investors, that startup founders are young geeks in hoodies, perhaps fed by the early successes of entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerburg and Bill Gates. Yes, there are a few who are, but the majority of successful high-growth startup founders, according to a 2018 article by Harvard Business Review, is actually 45 years of age. This conclusion seems to be corroborated by other research: A European Startup Monitor research done in Germany arrives more or less to the same conclusions: an average of 35-39 for startups that are 2.8 years old, perhaps stopping short of the critical tag “successful”.
In all fairness, there doesn’t seem to be that much research on this particular subject. As a matter fact the phenomenon of startups appears to be under-researched from an academic point of view. The cursory search I made gave no specific reasons, but the conclusions suggest that middle-aged entrepreneurs draw on plenty of work experience which develops their judgement, and are more adept at developing social networks and sourcing financial resources.
Closer to home, Malta’s most successful startups were co-founded by people in their thirties with a solid corporate experience behind them. Malta’s own early stage accelerator, YouStartIT, churns out entrepreneurs who are in their mid thirties with a few outliers in their early-mid twenties and at least a couple of silver backs in their forties.
What does all this mean to younger entrepreneurs? Starting young has its advantages. Inexperience gives you the innocence and blindness to venture into risky areas which the wisdom of hindsight would tell you to do otherwise. But it is precisely the risks you take, and their consequences you have to solve, that transform you into a lateral thinker, as you keep adjusting and adapting to a constantly morphing reality out there. This process gets better and better over time as you learn to balance out the creativity and ingenuity of youth with the shrewdness of experience and the insights gained from complex social networks. A baggage that equips you with the foresight you need to make judgements, well above and beyond the hard objective facts gained from research.