For many people, the word “entrepreneur” conjures up images of a 20-something tech genius who’s changed the world with a business built in their parents’ garage. The list of such success stories is long and topped by celebrities like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. But this false image of the definition of the word can limit people’s ambitions and put them completely off even trying to make a name for themselves with a new venture. As it turns out, this needn’t be the case. A study by MIT earlier this year found that successful entrepreneurs are more likely to be middle-aged than in the first flushes of youth. The average age of founders who started a high-growth company is, in fact, 45. So, which is better: younger with fewer responsibilities, or older with greater experience? We asked some of South Africa’s most successful entrepreneurs for their perspective on the age question.
Experience can be the best teacher…
Schalke Nolte started Entersekt, a provider of next-generation authentication and mobile app security, when he was 31 years old. While he doesn’t believe age is a determinant of success, he does believe the corporate experience he gained in his 20s was advantageous. “While I don’t think that older is better, some business experience is beneficial. It taught me how to drive delivery through confident leadership, and gave me a deeper sense of how to avoid certain pitfalls”, he says. Corporate experience is so important to Schalke’s mind, that he advises entrepreneurs with no prior business experience to actively seek it out from business-savvy mentors and board members. “The Entersekt co-founders were fresh out of university when we formed the company, and they had great ideas. Combining that with my business experience helped us get seed capital to ensure that we had the right resources to get our product ready for market”, he says.
…but not always
Cameron Stevens of Prodigy Finance, a borderless credit system enabling access to higher education for students from emerging markets, believes that this corporate experience isn’t always a good thing. “Sometimes being younger means you’ve had less time to be unhelpfully moulded by the business world”, he says. But he does agree that younger is not necessarily better. “I was 28 years old when I started Prodigy Finance. I don’t think age per se is important when you start up a new company”, he says. This is his third start-up; his first entrepreneurial venture was at age 19 while he was at university and his second was at 22, each of which were successful. “Being slightly older when I started Prodigy Finance has been beneficial primarily because I had greater access to funds, better confidence, an extensive network (particularly of angel investors) and some additional credibility”, he says.
Personality trumps youth
The perception is that the younger you are, the more willing you are to take on risks. While both Nolte and Stevens agree being younger generally does equate to having fewer responsibilities and dependents, they also both believe a person’s ability to take risks is more related to the individual’s personality than to their age. “Learning the art of taking a calculated risk is beneficial, no matter what your age”, he says. Stevens agrees that it’s down to the individual. “As a younger entrepreneur you can have more energy, more go-getting passion and a keener sense of accomplishing the impossible. But really, it’s all about the individual’s level of maturity and the exogenous circumstances. You need to have the confidence, network and access to some level of funding”, he says. In his view, what makes a successful entrepreneur is dogged determination, an energetic passion, a contrarian nature and a well-defined mission. “But most important is the irrational belief that you can succeed despite the naysaying”, he says. For Nolte, it’s all about the mind-set. “It takes a certain can-do mindset to take on something that does not yet exist, or to enter an established and competitive industry”, he says. Self-belief, a good dose of stubbornness, and above all, determination to take on all the odds to keep at it day after day, is also critical. “That being said, it’s important to remember that you can’t do it all alone. Ensure that you have a team you trust, and allow them to do what they are great at”, he says.
It’s never too late
At the end of the day, there are a number of factors that will determine your success as an entrepreneur. You could get the mix right in your 20s, or it could all come together in your 40s. While being older can be advantageous in some respects, so can being younger. Either way, there’s no need to be disheartened. If you’re in your 20s, take heart from the fact that you have many years in which to realise your dream. If you’re in your 40s, take heart from the fact that you’re not “too old” to take the plunge and make that big idea into reality.