When Mark Zuckerberg became a billionaire bedroom-startup star in 2008, he began a trend. He was followed by a host of young tech entrepreneurs making millions with brands like Snapchat, AirBnB and Instagram. And we began to believe that this was the new route to success in tech. But the problem with exceptions is that people forget they are just that – exceptions. Here we take a look at why the image of the tech wunderkind is not only wrong, but unhelpful.
Age is just a number
Firstly, it ignores the fact that successful startups need expertise that comes from experience. Zar Amrolia was a top executive at Deutsche Bank for a decade before he and his co-founder started a new fintech business, one that now trades billions of dollars’ worth of assets each day, and employs 150 people.
With all the attention on these 20-something tech stars, it can be hard to look away from the idea that, if you want to be relevant, you have to be young. Zuckerberg himself said “young people are just smarter” in 2007 – when he was 23. One wonders what he might say in ten years when he is 45. Venture capitalists perpetuate the same idea. In 2013, Paul Graham of Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator, said of founders’ ages: “the cutoff in investors’ heads is 32. After 32, they start to be a little skeptical.”
This mindset flies in the face of reality. According to a 2019 study from Northwestern University and MIT, the average age at founding for the fastest-growing new ventures is 45, while people in their 20s were the least likely to succeed.
They also found that entrepreneurs in their middle age were more likely to hire employees. So, not only are they more likely to succeed, they are more likely to provide jobs and help the economy.
The paradox of talent
Let’s see what it’s like to actually be a young prodigy, born with natural talent. In Adam Grant’s book Originals: How Non-Conformists Change the World, he argues that child prodigies rarely change the world. In fact, because they find academia and work so easy, it is not in their interest to challenge the established order. The non-conformists that do change the world are the hard workers who don’t have natural talent. Often, they weren’t very good at traditional education, like academics or sports, so they had to work twice as hard to get anywhere.
That’s not to say child prodigies don’t go on to have great careers, but they don’t tend to do anything original. As Grant says: “practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make anything new”. Insight tends to come from adversity, from trying, failing and learning.
What’s potentially damaging about the popular narrative of young success is the impact on grit. When older people internalise that narrative, they think it’s too late for them to start building something. And those young people who do try might give up if their first business fails. Putting a time limit on entrepreneurship means less dynamism in the industry and less activity in the economy.
What we need to do is start seeing more realistic stories as the sensations, with more believable entrepreneurs as the heroes. Not everyone wants to become a billionaire. Some just want to build something that makes a positive change for their communities, for themselves and their families. Let’s trust the person with experience and years of hard work behind them to do it right.