There’s still time to start a company: the average successful founder is 40

Don’t fence me in.
Don’t fence me in.
Image: Reuters/Aly Song
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This originally appeared on LinkedIn. You can follow Vivek Wadhwa here 

I was 33 years of age when I became an entrepreneur. I had developed a revolutionary technology at NY-based investment bank First Boston that IBM offered to invest $20 million in—provided that we spun this 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. And I had a wife and two children to support. Taking this would entail relinquishing a great job that paid a hefty six-figure salary for a startup that could easily go out of business—and that paid less. So it wasn’t an easy decision. Nonetheless, though I don’t know what made me do it, I took the plunge.

We grew the startup, Seer Technologies, to 1,000 employees and $120 million in annual revenue in a short five years. Then we took it public. The IPO. was fun, but the experience afterward 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 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. 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. It’s the kids who sell lemonade or start dog-walking businesses while in primary school. And some VCs pride themselves on their abilities for “pattern recognition.” I doubt that 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 with the stress of running my own company, I had to switch careers. But I still couldn’t go back to the corporate world. So I became an academic. And this is one of the first subjects that I researched.

My team surveyed 549 successful entrepreneurs. We found that the majority did not have entrepreneurial parents, and had felt no stronger entrepreneurial aspirations while going to school than I had. 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% were the first in their immediate families to start a business—just as were Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Sergei Brin, and Russell Simons (founder of Def Jam). 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 had 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 had little bearing, then, on the successes. So what did bear on them? Education did—but not which college they had 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 of practical ideas. They had become tired of working for others, and wanted to rise above their middle-class heritage.

So if people tell you that you’re too old to be an entrepreneur or have the wrong background, don’t listen to them. Go with your gut instincts, and pursue your passions. You’ll wonder, as I did, why you wasted your time working for that jerk boss.