Old dog, new tricks: you’re never too old to launch a startup venture

For the past couple of months, I’ve been sharing a bed with a 58-year-old, which has been quite the shock, since the last time I checked I was in my early thirties. Except this week, with absolutely no warning, I turned 59, which means I am now closer to 70 than 47. I know, technically that became true 12-months ago, but I don’t need your technicalities now. I need your help getting up the stairs. And with my eyesight.

I’m 59 years old. How did that happen? It was my birthday. I received some lovely whisky, a battery heated gilet, some speciality teas and tickets for Johnny Marr in Manchester at the end of the month. But 59?!

Age is just a number, right? What matters is how old I feel. And I don’t feel old. Only the other week I was thinking about booking tickets for the Isle of Wight festival. To have a bit of a summer party. Outdoors, take my own home brew bottled beer, lashing of home baked bread, and dancing to 1am. Well, dancing to 9pm. Except then I found myself searching the festival website as to how far their best glamping areas were from the stages. And how late the music went on. And what the toilet facilities were like. And the hot food. No, I am old. 

Mainly I blame my children. Not because they wiped out two whole decades and counting. I was 28 when I became a father and, seconds later, James, is asking if he can have pocket money which he absolutely cannot because he has only just learned to count. And then three years and a bit next came my daughter Katie, and before you know it, we had lanky boyfriends in the kitchen resembling Joey Ramone without the ace Ramones tee-shirt. None were good enough for my Princess. I left them in no doubt as I went upstairs to find out if my battery-operated toothbrush had fully recharged.

Some of you, I realise, will have little sympathy for me because you are even older than 59, if that’s even possible. But I’ve spoken to your sort before. It’s all I’ve never been happier, and I finally relaxed and began to enjoy myself when I turned 60. Hell’s teeth, I’m in the pre-queue for my flaming bus pass, give me a break. And once you’ve read an article about how octogenarians are the most sexually satisfied age group, it’s hard to forget.

I’m drinking my probiotic goat milk kefir as I write this. I’ll live in the present and enjoy each day as it comes. In Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, set in the aftermath of a nuclear war, everyone knows they have only a few months to live so they make the most of it. They drink vintage port, race cars, sail boats and fall in love. Spoiler alert: they all die horribly from radiation sickness, but that’s not the point. The lesson is that life is short, and we should make the most of it. Sadly, I’m not ready to learn that lesson yet because I’m only 32, going on 59. Well, past 59 actually.

Age is just a number, but do we understand the true meaning of it? It is supposed to be a motivational saying. The stupidity of allowing age to become a construct in our lives runs alongside the natural aspect of our existence being determined by biology. As humans we are fragile, and our bodies erode with time. Age is reduced to an ugly abstraction of decay, instead of being perceived as maturing joyfulness, experience, memories, learning, wisdom, etc.

The defiance of age-restricted activities gives off the vibe of a rebel, but we overlook how the reluctance of the acceptance of age as something more than a number stands in our way of progress as a human being. It not just counters the argument of age as a ripening of the mind and soul but also digs away at the potential of the future. Getting old is not a disease but a part of life. Age is not just a number. It is a calendar, which tells you how far you have come, and how far you still have to go.

With this in mind, I thought about ‘old dog, new tricks’, and what does our body and mind clock tell us about the best age to start a new business? Young entrepreneurs get a lot of press, but research shows 40-somethings are the best positioned to start a business, and that middle-age business founders are three times more likely to succeed than those who are under the age of 30. 

For many, twenty-something is characterised by uncertainty, while a lack of life and work experience could make your own venture a risky business. Your 30s is the era of children and mortgages, a combined responsibility that rules out taking a leap into the unknown. Forties, on the other hand, represents an attractive combination of improving financial security, self-awareness, life, and business experience – you feel comfortable in your market and can spot gaps you can fill.  

The fresh faced Mark Zuckerberg shifted the perception of what’s possible and the value of young entrepreneurs. He started Facebook in 2004 from his college dorm aged nineteen, and became the world’s youngest self-made billionaire by the age of 23. He was the first of the youthful visionaries disrupting traditional businesses with new ways of doing things. This was really the tipping point for the status of young entrepreneurs. 

To counter this, there are many successful entrepreneurs that got their start late in life: Henry Ford (aged 40 when founding Ford), John Pemberton (inventor of Coca-Cola, 55), Colonel Sanders (KFC, 65), and Brian Halligan (founder of HubSpot at 39) are examples. And while Steve Jobs may have launched Apple while he was in his 20s, the iconic products – the iMac, the iPhone, the iPad – were introduced under his leadership after he was 45. Apple introduced the company’s most profitable innovation, the iPhone, when Jobs was 52.

Thus there is no fundamental tension between the existence of great young entrepreneurs and a general tendency for founders to reach their peak entrepreneurial potential later in life. So, if you’re 40+ and thinking about your first time startup, what characteristics do over-40 entrepreneurs have that their younger counterparts might not yet have fully developed, that you should look for in yourself?

They never stopped trying. Life is long, time passes and if we try, we learn and improve. In fact, Zuckerberg at 23 strikes me as very young to start your own thing. So don’t worry about being behind. Don’t worry about the prodigy kids who started their first business when leaving school. Don’t worry about the folks who went straight from their MBA to startup. Just start your thing, work, and learn. Ford et al kept at it, they never stopped trying.

Piggybacking off years of experience older founders grow to understand what works, what doesn’t and what is needed in their industry. They also experiment. A lot. Harland Sanders, the founder of KFC was one of these people. For most of his life he had been a job-hopper, at one point a steamboat pilot, a farmer, dabbling in insurance and even fire safety. His first attempt to start a business, a service station, failed miserably and his second attempt, a restaurant, closed quickly. But Sanders didn’t stop and used the experience well. Middle-aged people take many more bites at the apple.

Age may actually be in your favour I don’t think any age is too late to start a business. I did my first startup when I was 29, my second when 45 and my third when I was 55. It was in my favour to start at those ages because I had experience at each juncture in decision making, negotiation and networking – with success and failure alike to shape me.

I suppose the age question comes from the myth that startups are the province of 20-year-olds who sleep under their desk and work 24/7/365. Yet age brings wisdom, understanding and patience. Having the experience of managing people and learning from mistakes are things that will make your startup run smoother, rather than slower.

Age is just a label The successful Silicon Valley ventures that are run by 20-year-olds are exceptions, not the rule. They get a lot of press which gives the impression that you need to be young to start a company. But for me in short, the adage ‘age is just a number’ is true. Age is simply a measurement of time; it does not need to be the barometer by which you measure your life.

The world is full of people bringing about change in their lives at all ages. Pre-Covid I was at night school in a Welsh-for-beginners class and marvelled at the collection of people in the room. It is never too late to start something new. The way we feel about our age is purely a limiting belief that we hold about ourselves. The novelist George Eliot famously said, It’s never too late to be what you might have been. This is sage advice for all aspects of life, but it might be especially relevant in the case of entrepreneurship.

Self-awareness You know what you’re good at and what you’re not by the time you get some years under your belt. By this point you also know what you want and what you don’t, so are in a good place to create a business and a lifestyle that is right for you.

Chronological age is marked by your date of birth and the number of years alive. Varying patterns of entrepreneurship have been documented regarding chronological age. In contrast to chronological age, subjective age is how young or old an individual experience themselves to be. Beyond chronological age, age-related factors such as a future time perspective account for changes in motivation. Hence, age is objective and subjective as well as static and dynamic.

Entrepreneurship is a choice that we make at various stages in our life’s journey. This choice sometimes arises out of identifying an opportunity, sometimes arises out of needing to earn a living and sometimes arises out of the need to ‘do our own thing’. Regardless of the origins of the choice, embracing entrepreneurship begins with you and your beliefs about what you aspire to be. Age is irrelevant at that moment.

It used to feel like no one would take you seriously unless you had a few grey hairs, or no hair at all. Now we have gone too far in the opposite direction and are only looking at the youngest entrepreneurs with admiration. Yet, data from Harvard shows that the average age of software startup founders in the US is 40 years old. It is 47 in the biotech space.

None of this fits our trailing hypothesis that age causes bad things to happen to us. But based on my research for this blog, and personal reflections, my perspective is that age does not have a causal relationship with the important outcomes in our thought experiment. In other words, age is just a number!

My number, 59. Birthdays are good for you. Statistics show that the people who have the most live the longest. Do not grow old, no matter how long you live. Never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born. Age isn’t a number, it’s an attitude.

Let this conclusion free you from worrying about your age increasing every year. Don’t sweat that number. However, this places responsibility firmly on you for making smart choices. The choices you make have a greater impact on your life than a growing number. Here is the real fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age. You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream. And the rest you can’t control.

We’re ready to talk...

Wherever you are on your startup journey, get in touch and let’s unpack your thinking together and see where we can help turn your idea into a reality.