In backpacker circles, when you turn 30, people ask “what’s wrong with this guy?” What you can get away with in your twenties, you can’t get away with 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 50 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 40, there’s a feeling that the aspiring business owner should just stick to buying the local doughnut or lawn-mowing franchise. Start-up 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 age 30 – Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg come to mind. This is clearly silly, given most businesses never come close to the successes of Microsoft or Facebook, but it’s a persistent belief nevertheless.
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When the entrepreneur turns 30, things begin to get tricky; sleeping on a friend’s sofa, working 18-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 even 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 about 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.
Do you think entrepreneurs have a biological clock?