July 19, 2023

Avoid the allure of the “young founder” myth

Graduation season is back, and a few of my close friends have kids graduating from college this year. Some of them studied at top tier schools in the US, where they were exposed to the energy of entrepreneurism, and are currently readying their own endeavors.  At some of my friends’ request, I met up and chatted with a few of these young people about their career plans. Here comes the surprise – I didn’t encourage them to go straight into the startup world. 

Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook at 19. Bill Gates founded Microsoft at 20. Steve Jobs created Apple at 21. These are the well known stories of individuals who dropped out of school and forged their own paths. Looking at the allure of these peoples’ natural talent and global achievements can contribute to the myth that younger entrepreneurs are more likely to succeed. But let’s stop and look at the data. According to statistics, the average age of successful founders is approximately 42 to 45. And I can tell you that in my personal experience, none of the successful founders I have invested in started immediately after graduation.  

The main reason that not many founders straight out of college succeed has to do with the skills needed at different stages of forming a startup. From the 0 to 1 stage, a great idea can help your team to attract funding more easily and quickly find your market demand. But as soon as your company wants to go from 1 to 100 – the life or death stage – your execution, competitive edge, and leadership skills will be put to the test.

Running a two person, 200 person, or even 2,000 person company requires completely different mindsets and methodologies. Without the proper training and life experience, many young founders hit various bottlenecks while scaling, such as less-than-smooth development, inefficient execution, or difficulty attracting good talent. 

A friend of mine who is an amazing engineer was hired by Facebook in 2008. In his second week, he confided in me that he wasn’t sure he had joined the right company. Because according to him, Mark Zuckerberg was spending all of his time tucked away in his office fixing code, showing little interest in any other parts of the business. 

This is the reason many say that if Facebook or Google had not brought in experienced managers like Sheryl Sandberg or Eric Schmidt, those companies might not have achieved the status they have today.  

I shared these thoughts with those young graduates considering becoming founders right out the door. Entrepreneurism is great, but before you get started, you need to think about what is the best timing to get started, how to acquire the necessary skills and experience, and what kinds of networks and resources you will need. Putting these things first will without a doubt increase your success rate significantly.

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