I was 33 years old when I became an entrepreneur. I had developed a revolutionary technology at First Boston, a New York-based investment bank, and IBM offered to invest $20 million in it—provided that we spun the technology off into a new company. I was asked to take the job of chief technology officer.
I didn’t come from an entrepreneurial family, and I had no entrepreneurial aspirations. I had a wife and two children to support. Taking this position would entail relinquishing a great job that paid a hefty six-figure salary, for a startup that could easily go out of business—and didn’t pay as well. So it wasn’t an easy decision. Nonetheless, I took the plunge.
We grew the startup, called Seer Technologies, to 1000 employees and $120 million in annual revenue in a short five years. Then we took it public. The IPO was fun, but the experience afterwards was like a nasty hangover. The excitement was gone. I got sick of the big-company politics and the obsession with meeting short-term revenue goals. I wanted out.
Microsoft tried recruiting me and told me they would have offered stock that was worth a fortune, but I could not stomach the thought of working for another big company. So I chose to start my own company again. I was 40.
I realized that, after tasting entrepreneurship, I had become unfit for the corporate world. There was no turning back. The only regret I had was having wasted my life in the corporate world for so long.
Some people say that my transformation was a fluke—that entrepreneurs are born, not made. They also say that successful entrepreneurs are young. I have had heated debates with venture capitalists who claim that they know an entrepreneur when they see one. They say it’s the kids who sell lemonade or start dog-walking businesses while in primary school. And some VCs pride themselves on their abilities of “pattern recognition.” I doubt I would have fit the pattern.
The majority of successful entrepreneurs don’t fit the pattern either.
How do I know? Because I’ve worked with leading academics to research this.
After my health suffered due to the stress of running my second company, I had to switch careers. But I still didn’t want to go back to the corporate world. So I became an academic. And the topic of what makes an entrepreneur is one of the first subjects I researched.
My team surveyed 549 successful entrepreneurs. We found that, like me, the majority didn’t have entrepreneurial parents or any entrepreneurial aspirations while going to school. They started companies because they had become tired of working for others, had a great idea they wanted to commercialize, or woke up one day with an urgent desire to build wealth before they retired.
We found that 52% of entrepreneurs surveyed were the first in their immediate families to start a business— just like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Sergei Brin, and Russell Simons (Def Jam founder). Their parents were academics, lawyers, factory workers, priests, bureaucrats, etc. About 39% had an entrepreneurial father, and 7% had an entrepreneurial mother. Some had both.
Only a quarter caught the entrepreneurial bug when in college. Half didn’t even think about entrepreneurship until then. There was no significant difference between the success factors or hurdles faced by entrepreneurs who were extremely interested in entrepreneurship in school (and who likely set up the lemonade stands) and the ones who lacked interest. But entrepreneurs with extreme interest started more companies and did it sooner. Of the 24.5% who indicated that they had been “extremely interested” in becoming entrepreneurs during college, 47.1% had gone on to start more than two companies (as compared with 32.9% of the overall sample). Sixty-nine percent started their companies within 10 years of working for someone else (as compared with 46.8% of the rest of the sample population).
Family entrepreneurship, prior interest and extreme interest had little bearing, then, on the successes. So what did bear on them? Education did—but not which college they graduated from. In a different study of the 652 CEOs and CTOs of 502 successful tech companies, we researched the correlation of education with the sales and headcount of companies founded. We learned that companies started by founders with just high-school diplomas differed significantly from the rest. Education provided a huge advantage. But there wasn’t a big difference between firms founded by Ivy-league graduates and those founded by graduates of other universities.
We also found that, in the tech world, older entrepreneurs are the norm—not the exception. Our research showed that the average founder of a high-growth company launched his venture at age 40. We also found that these founders were likely to be married and to have, on average, two or more kids. They typically had six to ten years of work experience and real-world ideas. They simply got tired of working for others and wanted to rise above their middle-class heritage.
So if anyone tells you that you’re too old to be an entrepreneur or that you have the wrong background, don’t listen to them. Go with your gut instincts and pursue your passions. Like me, you’ll wonder why you wasted your time working for that jerk boss.