Jan 112011
clock face

In backpacker circles, when you turn thirty people ask “what’s wrong this guy? What you can get away with in your twenties, you can’t get away once you’ve passed the big “three-oh”. It’s not dissimilar to the “biological clock” many women in their thirties confront as they perceive their days of easily having children are coming to an end.

A similar phenomenon exists in the business world, both for employees and business owners, that there are age limits on what someone can easily do. Like the backpackers, it’s more a perception than a reality.

Once upon a time you were past it at fifty years old. Through the 1980s, 90s and the early part of this century that “past it” age contracted, along with the deskilling of the workforce, to 45, then 40 then 35.

In the eyes of many in the corporate world today should you not have an established corporate career path by your mid-thirties then you are well “past it” and destined for a middling career and income.

With entrepreneurs a similar quandary exists, once over forty there’s a feeling that the aspiring business owner should just stick to buying the local doughnut or lawn mowing franchise. Startup land is no country for old men.

The underlying cause of  this view is the belief every successful business founder is rich beyond their dreams by thirty – Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg come to mind – that’s clearly silly given most businesses never come close to the successes of Microsoft or Facebook  but it’s a persistent one nevertheless.

When the entrepreneur turns thirty, things begin to get tricky; sleeping on a friends sofa, working eighteen hour days and living on instant noodles isn’t an option when you have kids, partners and mortgages. At the same time, family, friends and potential employers start to ask “if this guy’s so good, how come he isn’t a millionaire?”

To make things more difficult, risk adverse peers start bragging about how their safe, well paid job is allowing them to buy second homes or go on holidays most business owners can’t contemplate.

Probably the hardest thing though is that the doors of the corporate world start slamming shut; for a 40 year old entrepreneur who has been running their own businesses for 15 years, it’s difficult to get a job in the business world and any position available won’t recognise the skills developed in running your own enterprise.

Similarly, the warning to anyone with a decent corporate career who chooses to leave their safe office job to run their own business is usually “how can you risk throwing all of this away?”

Risk is the difference between the ages; once you’re over 40 with there being little prospect of a plan B involving returning to a nice corporate position, then the cost of failure is a lot higher.

In some ways this can be better; an individual staring down the prospect of a long, poverty stricken retirement has a very good incentive to get their business right and doesn’t have time to waste on speculative or “me-too” projects.

The idea there’s an age limit to launching new, innovative businesses and products is silly, but it’s a persistent one nevertheless. The great thing though with being your own boss is you don’t have to pay attention to other people’s dumb ideas and this one is a dumb as it gets.

  15 Responses to “The entrepreneur’s biological clock”

  1. Paul, building on your Cormack McCarthy imagery that “Startup land is no country for old men”, I’ve been on ‘The Road’ – the entrepreneurial road – for twenty years and am just about to join the 50-somethings.

    The uninformed prejudices about age-related entrepreneurial prowess make me smile. They are a great filter to test the readiness of the rookie to make a run for the wire from corporate clutches. If that kind of opinion makes you think twice about jumping, then it’s better you stay a ‘salary man or woman’. The start-up jungle is no place for those easily swayed by hot air.

    Best to you,


  2. Hear hear Robin, well said Paul.
    That line from the movie Pretty Woman comes to mind ( http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0100405/quotes ) :
    Vivian: People put you down enough, you start to believe it.
    Edward Lewis: I think you are a very bright, very special woman.
    Vivian: The bad stuff is easier to believe. You ever notice that?

    I am also reminded of the controversial post about the “white collar underclass” where you took the author to task Paul (and I agreed with you in the comments) http://startupblog.wordpress.com/2010/01/03/the-white-collar-underclass/

    My comment ended with a “call to entrepreneurship for Australians – lets start executing on all those great ideas we keep having”

    Age has nothing to do with it. In fact these days I am more confident than ever and get a great boost when people I meet look at me so curiously, wondering how I could “do this or say that”

    Lets remain determined and persist (to quote Coolidge) I’ll leave you with his famous words:

    Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.
    Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.
    Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.
    Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.
    Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Robin Dickinson. Robin Dickinson said: JUST COMMENTED: RT @paulwallbank: Do entrepreneurs have a biological clock? http://bit.ly/hNXst6 Excellent topic, Paul. #Centurions […]

  4. Paul, Robin and Tony, I admire all of you for your comments.
    I agree that entrepreneurs need strength of character to overcome obstacles, it is not a journey for the faint-hearted.
    Zuck might be a young multi-billionaire, but does he have the wisdom and maturity to make smart ethical decisions? Some say he is too young to have so much power.
    We’ve seen so many people lose much of their superannuation, their hard earned retirement funds in the GFC. Today 75% of Queensland has been declared a disaster zone. Puts things in perspective.
    Go for it guys, be the leaders and show them what you’re made of. I’ll be by your side.

    “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.” Henry David Thoreau

    Frances means Freedom.

  5. Points to be considered
    1. The internet is a mere baby in reality. What may seem true today will not be the case in 2,5,10 years time

    2. Studies show that the older you get over fifty, the more optimistic you are about finances and risk (hence old people being ripped off) . If the Boomers don’t get the tech now, Gen X does…think about that. http://www.scienceline.org/2010/11/older-and-wiser/

    3. More people (like me) will be bailing out of their corporate careers earlier to create something for themselves. They will have cash behind them and be bootstrapping lean businesses using processes they have seen work in their corporate lives (and avoiding those that don’t)

    I get really pissy when people say because I am a woman in my 40’s with a chronic illness that I somehow don’t belong along with everyone else on the frontier. Screw you young whipper snappers. get off my lawn!

  6. My questions are where do these myths emanate from, and what systems do they protect?

    Age and gender myths are there to be challenged, but before entering the ring one needs to have studied the opponent, before engaging in warfare with such a sacred cow.

    Which is where age becomes a benefit, rather than a stumbling block. I’m learning there is absolutely no substitute for battle hard experience, and wisdom.

    In my not so humble view, there is only one game in town. The more experienced player walks into the ring, past their younger opponents, and shows them how to play the GAME.

    • Thanks for the comment Catherine. You raise an interesting point about what systems are being protected.

      One commenter on my recent ABC post about the Australian retail industry made a very pertinent point that corporate Australia is locking out a whole generation of late baby boomers, Gen Xs and Ys, I tend to agree and suspect there’s a good blog post there.

  7. There are those that are naturally futuristic and those that worry about precedence and the past.

    Entrepreneurs tend to focus on the future and are not limited by fear of failure, nor take comfort in the false security gained by hanging onto the status quo.

    There is no such thing as predictability and safety, no formula or right way to approach creativity, innovation, risk and wealth – and certainly no way to successfully fight off the need to change and evolve.

    As someone who has proactively left the so-called “safety of a C-level executive role” to build two new businesses from the ground up around my strengths and passions – not only am I now comfortably financially rewarded, I have done so whilst enjoying greater flexibility, taken some fabulous holidays, experienced the joy of creating much greater upside in potential future returns, gained greater satisfaction in the meeting of challenges, in business growth and in customer wins than anything that was previously delivered in the “safety” of the corporate world. And I will continue to adapt and change again if I believe there is an opportunity to be explored and leveraged.

    And although it is of zero relevance to how I think or operate, I am 40, female, a mother to three kids, am currently studying part-time and celebrating 20 years of marriage (in July this year). I generally do not fit any pre-determined mould, nor would I care to create one.

    This discussion reminds me of the quote:

    “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” George Bernard Shaw

  8. LOL
    What a relief!
    The idea that an entrepreneur has a biological clock is definitely as dumb as it gets!
    Its never too late to live life to the full, and lead a life that satisfies.

  9. I think the original post by Paul was very much from the perspective of a young man 😉
    I know lots of women who don’t get going in their careers or starting businesses until their children are older. Three women of my acquaintance — two in their mid-50s, another in her mid-60s — have started successful Internet-based businesses from scratch in the past three years. The older one has now more or less passed the first business on to her son to keep running while she investigates a new one.

  10. Well thank goodness I found this out! I am hopeless when it comes to understanding the Code for what’s Acceptable, though I might have suspected it.

    But it leads us to something of a quandary.
    Gen Y is too lazy and have no loyalty and
    30 is ‘over the hill’.

    With so many cool 30-somethings still living at home with the parents,
    and parents retirement being pushed back further and further… where are
    the parents going to work?

    More to the point, when do the parents get to move in to their
    30 year old’s house, if they are themselves then on the slippery-slope to

    Who’s going to pay the bills…?

    Oh indeed it is a worry.

  11. I’d venture a guess that the main interest this myth protects is venture capitalists’ preference for founders with zero business experience, who think $20,000 for 17% of their company is a great deal.

  12. Hi Paul, interesting article. However I seem to remember that there was a study done in the US that showed that the median age of founders was 42. (sorry I can’t remember the reference) While some of this can be contributed to serial entrepreneurs it does put paid that you must be in your 20s and 30s to have a shot at creating a successful startup.

  13. Thanks for the tip on the average age of business founders, Roger. I’ll go hunting for that.

    Good point Viveka. I suspect there’s some truth there.

    I wish it were the perspective of a young man, Keren. Your examples ring true with me, in one of my businesses we did computer support for a lot of entrepreneurs and I met a lot of ladies who had built successful businesses while raising families who were launching new enterprises while well into their fifties and sixties.

    Lindy, you raise a really good point about exclusion which ties into what Catherine raised earlier; if Gen-Y are too lazy and over 30s too old, then it leaves only those in power to run businesses, industries and economies. That’s a far bigger issue.

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