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Liz Hamburg

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Am I Past My Entrepreneurial Prime?

Posted: 06/02/11 04:33 PM ET

I made the mistake of attending the Tech Crunch Disrupt NYC conference on my birthday last week.

One of the morning presentations was by uber-angel investor Ron Conway and David Lee who runs SV Angel, giving the results of their survey of 500 of their portfolio companies. They were trying to figure out what made their top investments so successful. No surprise, the results showed that co-founders tend to do better than individual founders. 95% of the success stories were male founders. The really disheartening one was that almost 70% of the "big" successes (defined by them as over $500m in value) were under 30 years old. And, 90% were repeat entrepreneurs which meant that these under 30's already had at least one company under their belt.

It's not clear whether this data was skewed by the fact that they mostly invested in male repeat entrepreneurs under 30 or if I should take this birthday wake up call as a sign and as an over 30 woman, pack up my start-up bag and go home!

While this is just one data point and I know many, many successful entrepreneurs who are "older and wiser," I do think that there is a cultural shift partially driven by the media -- especially in the tech world -- towards convincing young people that they need to make their first (not even million) but $500 million NOW!

At the Tech Crunch conference, there were two Stanford freshman who had worked all night to program their app then flown on the red-eye to set up a booth at the conference with the hopes of getting selected to present. Conway told a story of being in a conference room with a team of young entrepreneurs whom he was about to fund. They needed their parents there to co-sign the documents because they weren't old enough!

Peter Thiel, another very well respected venture capitalist who was one of the co-founders of PayPal and the first outside investor in Facebook, is promoting the idea that a college education may not be worth it and true entrepreneurs should skip school and jump right in. He just announced the first "20 under 20" Thiel Fellows who will each be given $100k over 2 years plus mentorship and access to an amazing network of tech entrepreneurs to work on projects instead of going to university. The idea is that a young person who has graduated from college already has so much student debt and maybe even a mortgage. So, Thiel wants to give them the opportunity to work on their ideas without taking on a lot of risk -- if you call dropping out of college for two years not taking risk!

We've all heard the Bill Gates' story and by now probably seen The Social Network. I've been on the board of my alma mater, Brown University's Entrepreneurship Program for years and have personally seen some amazing young entrepreneurs build sustainable businesses. However, maybe I'm getting old and crotchety (OK, it was my birthday!), but there's something to be said for learning from others and paying your dues.

Sure, younger entrepreneurs can afford to take more risk and work longer hours. But what about the benefit of years of experience, strong networks, perspective?

Thank you to Adeo Ressi, the founder of the Founder Institute and an over-30 entrepreneur who argued recently against a peak age for entrepreneurship. Their research at the Founder Institute shows that "an older age is actually a better predictor of entrepreneurial success."

Conway says that older founders are "more conservative" and maybe more likely to go for more modest returns. So, part of the question is how do we define "success"? What message are we sending if every entrepreneur thinks they will only be considered a "success" by providing investors with a extremely large and relatively quick return? A recent New York Times article talked about companies like Facebook and Google acquiring start-ups for millions of dollars to grab young talent. Often, the acquiring companies shut down the company they've just acquired and just keep the talent.

Of course, I love that young people are following their passions and feeling empowered to pursue them. But I just worry that perhaps we are sending them the wrong message about the goal of starting a business. Is the idea of building a sustainable business that creates jobs, provides value to the community and satisfaction and long-term employment to its founders a thing of the past?

So, I think I'll blow out one more birthday candle and have one more glass of champagne while I ponder the question of what it means to be a successful entrepreneur today. By the way, I should mention ... I started my first business before 30!

 

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