How old is an entrepreneur?
Two of the biggest social and economic questions facing western post-industrial economies in recent years have been aging populations and how to keep the working population busy. At least that’s what the conventional political and academic establishments have told us. But what does it really matter to business if the population is aging?
For some time, life expectancy has been increasing and improved health awareness and care have enabled many people to enjoy active lifestyles for decades longer than in any previous generation. The 100-year life is no longer a remarkable event, but is becoming something much more commonplace. In some countries, including the UK, many of those now over 60 will have spent all or most of their working lives in an economy which increasingly focussed on knowledge, not manual labour. Knowledge, ingenuity, experience and inventiveness often remain at their peak long after manual labour becomes more difficult. Yet governments have been slow to react to the changing demographics and aspirations of a well-educated, healthier post-industrial workforce. In the UK, state and society both condition workers to expect to become economically inactive at 65 or 66. That’s a mistake for the economy, society and for knowledgeable workers.
There are many examples of successful businesses being started by older entrepreneurs, and being led by them. One of my favourite examples of a start-up is Dave Duffield, who launched Workday at the age of 64. Carlos Slim (aged 76), head of an enormous business conglomerate and one of world’s richest men, recognised a few years ago that in a post-industrial economy where years of manual labour have not taken their toll, workers in their 60s are at their most productive for economies based on knowledge, information and experience. In the UK and US, the average age of an entrepreneur starting their first businesses is 47 and 40 respectively. But as Roya Wolverson of Time Magazine discovered in her research: “High growth start-ups are almost twice as likely to be launched by people over 55 as by people aged 20-34”. It seems the popular mythology of teenage technology entrepreneurs being the only possible profile for a successful business start-up is just that: a popular myth.
Successful start-ups are not just in the technology sector, but it would be hard to find a successful start-up which did not use technology in some significant way in its business. Technology is one of the key enablers which help simple communication with customers and suppliers anywhere in the world. It also permits small companies to use the services of much larger enterprises, such as global logistics businesses, more easily and at a lower cost than ever before.
Although they attract the most discussed if not most sensible funding, we should draw a distinction between the thousands of technology start-ups which investors throw money at in the hope that someday a way will be found to make a profit from them, and those quieter, smaller well-run business which rely on skill, happy customers and offering something people want. The former is a type of gambling. The latter is the low-profile bedrock of a prosperous and changing economy which entrepreneurs of any age are capable of succeeding at.