Forbes' columnist Liz Kammel suggested in her column recently, that you should "Start a company when you're 25—not when you're 52." As a 52-year-old founder of an Internet startup looking for seed money myself, I have to take strong exception to her piece.
She suggests that the most appropriate model is for the twenty-somethings to launch companies, and for the fifty-somethings to be mentors. And while that is certainly a good model, it's not the only one—and it's shortsighted to relegate entrepreneurs with experience to the scrapheap of mentorship. She assumes that by the time we're 50, we're done, and ready to sit back on our laurels and pass on our wisdom. I have run into that perception (many times), and not only is it incorrect, it is extremely dangerous to the industry.
Remember the dotcom boom of the '90s? I do. Do I sound like an old man yet? That rush of activity represented a tremendous push forward for the state of technology and commerce, and we're still enjoying the benefit of that tech bubble today. But there is no disputing that the bubble burst, and it burst suddenly and hard. Part of the reason why is simply because, in Silicon Valley's youthful rush to launch companies on the strength of a coffeehouse chat, many companies just forgot about the day-to-day operations—and they forgot about building in a way for their ultra-cool technology to actually make money. The optimism and boundless energy of youth created a lot of great and useful technology, but the impetuousness of youth is at least partly to blame for some of that technology crashing and burning before it could do anybody any good.
She does correctly suggest that there may come a time for the young startup entrepreneur to pass the reigns to an older and more experienced CEO once the startup reaches a certain level of maturity (Are you listening, Zuckerberg?). But, she still leaves no room for fifty-something innovators and entrepreneurs to actually use their substantial wisdom and expertise to launch startup companies. She makes the tired old arguments about younger people needing less money, having more energy for late night brainstorming sessions, and being more mobile in general. And while that may be true to some degree, it's irrelevant. A startup is a startup. It needs to be conceived, created, and nurtured by someone who is excited about the concept, who has a team in place, and some know-how to go beyond concept to the execution stage. That's where the grey hair comes in.
I suggest to the VCs and angels out there, let's put a few resources behind the fifty-somethings of the Internet world, and stop pouring money into the jeans pockets of nineteen-year-old Stanford dropouts for a while. Let's try an Internet company with a fifty-something at the helm from the get-go, with the twenty-somethings learning along the way, and see the incredible wave of innovation that comes forth as a result. The tech industry and Silicon Valley is a powerhouse, let's not limit its potential with ageism.