The startup scene is teeming with baby-faced entrepreneurs looking to rock the world. And why not? Youth is sexy: it’s tech-savvy, in top shape, power-hungry, unburdened by family demands and mortgages, and armed with fresh ideas and a “bring it on” attitude.
The Mark Zuckerbergs of the world helped pave the way for fresh grads (and talented college drop-outs) to dream big. More often than not, those dreams are being realised, capitalised and monetised. Attend any co-working space, networking event or tech conference, and anyone would think the startup world is reserved for young 20-something year olds. But supporting this general profile seems counterintuitive to the long-held belief that experience and seniority is key to success in business.
Last year, researchers at Stanford and Harvard found that when it comes to weighing someone with great achievement versus someone with great potential, we often lean toward the potential. In the burgeoning tech industry, are we simply romanticising the idea of a young founder? Does age really matter when building a successful startup?
To find out, we take on the “age-old debate” and speak to Alex Farcet, co-founder and Managing Director of Europe-wide accelerator program Startupbootcamp; 20-year-old Connor McEwen, co-founder of Credport; and 61-year-old Beate Wedekind, high-profile German journalist turned entrepreneur and arguably the oldest startup founder in Germany.
“We’ve had a self-taught 19-year-old programmer and a successful 48-year-old Australian author”
Farcet sees a slew of entrepreneurs put through Startupbootcamp’s intensive three-month program – getting them ready for funding, launching and scaling to European and global markets. Present in Berlin, Dublin, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and, recently, Haifa in Israel, 10 promising teams are hand-picked from hundreds of willing applicants across each city, each year.
“Over the three years the programme’s been running, the average age for joining Startupbootcamp has been around 26, but it varies a lot,” says Farcet. “We’ve had a self-taught 19-year-old programmer and a successful 48-year-old Australian author. But they’re not all that different, they’re equally motivated and driven by this bug to build something for themselves.
“The average age of entrepreneurs is getting younger. It takes less capital and less resources, whereas 20 years ago it was so much harder and more costly. You needed to be mature to handle the capital and the timeline, but now you go to an accelerator and in three months you have a really good idea of whether your thing’s going to work or not.”
The young risktaker
“I was a typical case myself,” says Farcet. The 45-year-old from Denmark moved to San Francisco straight out of school and on the job prowl back in 1991. “I wanted to work for a startup. So, I ended doing that for a year, and then for a whole bunch of reasons I went back to Europe, worked a corporate career, blinked – and 12 years had gone by,” he muses. “After life threw me a curveball where my son and I both had cancer, I got straight back into startups and thought ‘this is my dream’. Life’s too short.”
“Today, this is one of the few industries where young people can be taken seriously,” says Credport’s McEwen. He and co-founder Nam Chu Hoai, 21, encapsulate the young, determined “drop out of college to follow your dreams” entrepreneur type. After collaborating on their idea while sharing a room at Boston University, the duo cut their studies short to dedicate their time and energy to Credport – a reputation aggregator that looks to build trust between people online.
“My mother wasn’t too pleased that I didn’t get my degree. But for me, it was a great time to start a company – we’re not risking much,” McEwen explains. When you’re gambling with entrepreneurship, it helps when there’s not much at stake.
“Our operative costs are low, we don’t have big responsibilities and it’s not like we have to start making money tomorrow. We don’t have kids or a mortgage and can get by pretty cheaply.”
For the young and business-minded like McEwen, the allure of the startup world is hard to resist: “Barriers are so low that you can make the most difference doing this. At the age of 22, where or how else could you make a real difference? If you work in a corporation, you work to climb the ladder. In a startup – there’s a big chance it could fail, but there’s also a chance that you’ll learn a lot from the experience and succeed.”
The seasoned worker
When most people her age are looking to retirement, Wedekind’s thrown herself into startup entrepreneurship – soaking up the industry’s infectious energy and fresh approach to building a company. The media veteran has been editor-in-chief of Germany’s Elle and Bunte magazines and directed countless TV productions, with a long-line of other credentials. She’s now building online magazine THE NEW//AFRICA, which aims to be the broker for the young aspiring generation in Africa – focusing on the continent’s opportunities, progress and success stories, while introducing northern business and brands to its booming middle class.
“The first time I found startups interesting was when I learned that – in working with a small team of founders – you can really accelerate the process of building a business so much faster than in the old economy style,” says Wedekind.
Rivalling the dynamism of her younger counterparts, Wedekind’s working alongside 14 other seed-stage startup teams in Berlin at hub:raum, Deutsche Telekom’s accelerator program . “I’m more than double the age of the others there, and I always think ‘wow’, this young generation is moving faster and further ahead than when I was 25,” she remarks.
Wedekind’s experience was key to successfully starting-up, and she holds a great capacity to guide and mentor others. She’s also armed with the people and management skills to deal with the ups and downs of a startup and has a heightened sense of what sorts of corporate values should be left to, well, big corporations. It also doesn’t hurt that people know who she is.
“I always say that age doesn’t matter; it’s your mentality,” she says. “I know 28-year-olds who are very conservative in what they do and how they think. They to me feel much older than say an innovative 52-year-old.”
When it comes to her startup, Wedekind’s looking to scale effectively internationally – over the next three to five years. But she’s not stopping there: “Once that becomes successful, I already have a second idea I’d like to pursue,” she says.
“Just do it if you have the passion” – push ageist generalisations aside…
“Experience is important but what matters is that you can learn fast on the job, and you have the right attitude and right work ethic,” Farcet says.
In the end, ageism forms part of the nexus of classic biases, which – along with gender and race – need to be thrown out when assessing the right recipe for success.
“If you’re able to build something that people love, people don’t give a shit what school you went to, what experience you had or if you’re qualified. Nobody looks at your CV and it’s very indiscriminate,” Farcet argues.
“If you can make opportunities happen, then, awesome. When we talk about age, sex, education and track record – we limit ourselves and end up discouraging people who may be thinking ‘I’m not in the right box’, which is what headhunters do. Fuck headhunters. Just do it if you have the passion. I wasn’t particularly qualified when I started but I just got going. It’s a cliche but if you love what you’re doing you’re going to do well.”
Photo credit: Flickr user daverugby83