I’m Jonathan, the CEO & cofounder of actiondesk.io. We let business teams easily automate their processes using only their spreadsheet skills, saving them tons of time.
Some aspiring entrepreneurs often ask me whether they should start their company now or wait a few years to gain experience. So I’ve decided to write a blog post trying to bring a structured answer to that question.
I started actiondesk a bit more than a year ago, when I was 29 and had been working for about 5 years. I knew I wanted to start a tech company during my studies but wasn’t really sure when. The Silicon Valley myth lets you think most founders are in their early twenties, but those are actually exceptions rather than the norm (more on that later). That being said, starting early has plenty of advantages. So if you’re in the situation where you know you want to start a company at some point, how should you approach this situation?
I’ll share here some data and thoughts that can help you think about things clearly.
This article is targeted to people who think they want to be entrepreneur later, and particularly people who want to start a high-growth company, although some thoughts might be relevant for any kind of entrepreneurship. I am not saying that everyone should be an entrepreneur. There are different paths in life, and you need to choose the one that fits you. As The Family says, anyone can be an entrepreneur, not everyone.
Final note before I get to it, I don’t hold the absolute truth, I’d love for this to be challenged and for people who have different experiences to share them. Feel free to comment!
A look at the age distribution of startup founders
If you look at most media articles, movies or the stories of Apple, Microsoft, Facebook or Airbnb, you might think that if you’re over 25, then you’re already too old to build a successful high-growth company.
- The average age of founders of high-growth companies at the time they started is in the early forties.
- Even if you look specifically at software, the average is 40.
- Means can be misleading, but not here. Only 10% of high growth companies are founded by people under the age of 29.
- Lastly, the older you are the more likely you are to have extreme success (unless you’re more than 60, when it starts decreasing).
Now, one interesting question that I haven’t found data on is whether those “older” founders are people who actually started their first company in their twenties and were entrepreneurs pretty much throughout their career or whether they were mostly employees who then became entrepreneurs.
Advantages to starting later in life
It actually makes sense. What’s surprising is that 20-year-olds are able to build billion-dollars companies. Let’s look at all the factors making you a better entrepreneur when you’re in your forties:
- You probably have a bit of money saved that you can use to bootstrap your company
- You have a wider network: people who could be your cofounders, investors, early employees.
- You have working experience which means two important things
a/ You are likely to be better at executing a business model than when you were 20
b/ You have spent years understanding products, problems and are in a better position to find a good problem to solve and a good solution.
Advantages of starting younger
- You have no expenses, you can live with your parents or in a super cheap shared flat, eat noodles for every meal and you don’t care.
- You don’t have a family, you can spend 100% of your time and energy on your company. No need to pick up the kids or buy flowers for Valentine’s Day. (OK, you still might have to do the latter.)
- You probably have more energy than when you’re 40, you don’t mind pulling all-nighters 3 times a week if needed.
- You’re closer to trends related to youth. It’s hard to imagine Facebook or Snapchat being created by a forty-year-old.
- You have a lot of time to start several companies and fail before eventually succeeding. More on that later, but there’s no better way to learn how to build a successful company than to try to build one.
Does experience really give you an advantage?
When it comes to starting a company, I think experience is a double-edged sword.
1/ With experience, you’re better at execution
Sure, it depends on what you’ve been doing, but generally, experience should make you better at least at doing one thing: web development, marketing, logistics, hiring, etc.
When the time comes to do those things, you’ll be better than you would have been without your experience.
2/ As an employee, you never learn to reach product-market fit
Product-market fit is that point where you’ve built a product that meets a strong demand from customers. Reaching PMF can take time and require very different skills than executing a plan when you know you have a market.
Unless you’ve been an early employee in a pre-product-market fit company, you don’t learn to do this.
I spent 3 years as a senior exec with Jumia, the largest e-commerce platform in Africa and a very fast growing company. I learned loads about growth, building a marketplace, logistics, operations, general management and hiring.
But I’ve barely used any of that experience so far with actiondesk because we haven’t reached product-market fit yet.
3/ It’s easy to get stuck in your ways
When you spend time learning things, it’s only human to want to apply this knowledge. The problem is that what you learn as an employee will probably not work in your startup. Spending a lot on paid marketing, for example, will not work before you reach product-market fit.
4/ With experience, you can find a problem you’re passionate and knowledgeable about
I think that’s probably the main advantage of starting later in life. Before starting my work life, I mainly had ideas about consumer products that I liked but was not passionate about. Working enabled me to develop strong skills related to data analysis and operations. I loved building internal data-based tools enabling our operations to perform better. I found a problem in this area and dedicated my time to solving it with actiondesk.
I would never have thought of this problem without first working in various companies. It’s hard to identify B2B problems and solutions when you don’t have much experience (some do which I always find fascinating).
So what should I do?
In the end, if you know you want to build a company, you are passionate about a problem or an idea, no matter what your age, I strongly think the right time to start is now. You don’t want to look back later and think, “I would have liked to start a company but life got in the way.” I actually think the risks of starting a company are overstated. What’s the worst thing that can happen? You spend 2–3 years to end up failing. You won’t have earned much during that time, you won’t have bought a flat / house like some people. But if you worked hard, you’ll have something to show for it (a product, some level of traction, etc.), and you shouldn’t struggle to find a new job.
The only situation where I would advise waiting is if there’s nothing you’d like to build. In that case, go get a job in an industry you like, and preferably in a young startup. The best way to learn how to start a company is to do it, the second best is to be part of a company being built. If you do that, be extremely careful to keep eyes on your objective. It’s very easy to let years pass, increase your expenses, and feel at that point that it’s too hard to start a company.