40 is the New 20: The Success of Middle Age Tech Founders

by Mark Stagen September, 5, 2019 Leadership and Management

40 is the New 20: The Success of Middle Age Tech Founders

The trope of the twentysomething Silicon Valley wunderkin is well-established in the popular imagination. After all, no list of famous college dropouts would be complete without mentioning the tech company tri-fecta of Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple), and Mark Zuckerburg (Facebook), all of whom became incredibly wealthy and successful by their mid-20s. The HBO series Silicon Valley further solidified the image of a group of wide-eyed entrepreneurs flirting with fame and fortune in the tech startup world.

But does that image have any grounding in reality? Are stories like Gates, Jobs, and Zuckerberg typical among tech company founders or are they merely the most notable outliers?

Founding, running, and scaling a successful startup is a massive undertaking, and one that more often than not results in disappointment. Nine out of ten technology startups end up failing, most of them because they tried to scale too quickly. Getting a company off the ground with a marketable product and shepherding it through the initial growing pains to a successful IPO or high-profile sale to a larger company takes a unique combination of grit, skill, and luck. While there are a rare few individuals who manage to get it right the first time, there are plenty of successful founders who had to learn a few hard lessons from failed startups or spent years working in the industry before striking out on their own.

In fact, according to a recent study, most successful startup founders belong in those latter categories.

Northwestern University economics professor Seema Jayachandrin showcases this new research in her New York Times article, “Founders of Successful Tech Companies Are Mostly Middle-Aged.” As the title suggests, it turns out the average age of the founders of the most profitable, fastest growing firms is 45 years old, which is actually slightly higher than the age of the average business founder (42 years old). In her excellent overview of this research, Professor Jayachandrin demonstrates how the combination of experience and a different perspective on market needs allows middle-aged founders to build companies that are more likely to find sustainable success.


Starting a company later in life not only allows founders to accumulate a variety of skills and expertise that can prove invaluable for running a business, it also gives an opportunity to build a network of peers and mentors who can provide assistance. Running a company can be a lonely undertaking, and even the most confident and resourceful founders sometimes need to seek advice from people who know what they’re going through. That’s why membership in a CEO/executive peer group can be so beneficial to entrepreneurs. Whether they’re stepping out on their own for the first time or taking another run at launching an ambitious startup, having knowledgeable advisors close at hand to offer guidance and support can improve their odds of success.

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