If there’s one thing I just don’t get about the tech scene – whether here or in the States – it’s the obsession with age. It’s bizarre.
No Oldies Allowed
I recently had an encounter with a television network (who will remain nameless) that highlighted this very obsession. They initially got in touch because they wanted to make a documentary about a successful London startup. They were very interested in import.io since we are doing well and are fairly well known in the London tech scene. We are also planning to move part of our operations out to Silicon Valley and have been expanding rapidly as a company. Everything was adding up.
Then, a few weeks ago, I got a call saying they had decided to drop us. When I asked why, they told me they were only interested in startups whose founders are under 25. Now, at 43 I realize I’m not the striking young man I used to be. But, come on! That hardly makes me a less interesting CEO. In fact, I’d argue it makes me a more interesting one.
The more I thought about this, the more confused – and, I’ll admit, a little hurt – I became. As far as I can work out, tech is the only area of business where people are so fascinated with age.Think about it, if a major bank put out a press release saying they were hiring a 25-year-old as the next CEO, everyone would freak. And for good reason. Someone who’s 25 has very little (probably no) practical CEO – or even banking for that matter – experience.
Experience vs Youth
There is this strange idea in tech that only young people can be innovative or have good ideas. I certainly don’t think this is the case. Surely, the far more important question, when looking at a CEO, should be “What relevant experience does he/she have?”. If you’re 25 and making a sexting app; sure, you probably have relevant experience. But, if you’re trying to solve a real industry issue, I’d say most 25 year-olds I’ve met would be totally useless.
I’m not saying that younger founders don’t have good ideas, or that they can’t make anything other than simple sexting apps. Far from it. But, if you look at the data behind who have been the most successful founders in tech or made the most disruptive technologies, it hasn’t been the fresh-out-of-uni types, albeit with a few notable – and well publicised – exceptions.
Here’s the proof
This isn’t just me being a grouch, there have been several studies which show that having some real-world experience under your belt is more beneficial when starting a company. The Founder’s Institute recently conducted a study which showed that older age has shown to correlate with more successful entrepreneurs up to the age of 40 (after which point it makes minimal difference). And Business Insider found that more than 50% of founders whose companies were valued at $25M+ were over the age of 30.
Chart courtesy of Business Insider
The anecdotal evidence largely supports these findings as well. Jeff Bezos started Amazon at 30, Jack Dorset co-founded Twitter at 30, Ried Hoffman co-founded LinkedIn at 35, Elon Musk launched SpaceX at 31 and Huddle co-founders Andy McLoughlin and Alastair Mitchell are 33. Even the founders of WhatsApp (Jan Koum and Brian Acton) – arguably the most successful tech exits to date – were 35 and 39 respectively.
Infographic courtesy of Funders and Founders
I think if you really look at the track record of tech companies, you’ll see that most of them do value relevant experience over youth. One of the first things Google did when they started gaining traction was bring in Eric Schmidt (46), who was a seasoned tech professional.
A dangerous precedent
So clearly there is a need for, and history of, seasoned professionals in tech startups. But, if you believe the tech press, you’d think that all Silicon Valley founders are young-white-males. I think this is a huge detriment to the culture of startups in general. The tech industry in San Francisco has essentially become a bit of a boys club in a lot of respects. Left unchecked, this mindset can become dangerous very quickly – trust me, I worked at a major bank in the 90s. If the PR disaster that was Julie Ann Horvath leaving GitHub tells us anything, it’s that Silicon Valley needs a serious reality check.
At the risk of sounding like a bitter old man, this attitude around age needs to change. To a certain extent I think it may be more of a media attitude than anything else. But the media has a large impact on the way people in and outside of Silicon Valley think and act. The media needs to focus on great entrepreneurs. Great entrepreneurs are all ages, all sexes and may not even be based in the Valley!