But the reality is not nearly so clear cut. My own experience of setting up Zendesk is a testament to the fact that, if you’ve got a great idea and the passion to see it through, startup success can be achieved at any age.
The older you are, however, the more you have to lose. When we were establishing Zendesk back in 2007, we were in our 30s and had careers and families to think about. Somebody starting out in business in their 20s, on the other hand, might have more energy and stamina, as well as fewer commitments. It’s much easier to throw caution to the wind when you don’t have to worry about repaying the mortgage, or feeding the family.
For us, these considerations were especially acute as, a few years into Zendesk, we weren’t only leaving behind steady incomes, but also leaving our native Denmark for Silicon Valley via Boston – a massive upheaval for all of our families. But if you believe in your idea, you need to be willing to take the big decisions. We had legitimate concerns about throwing everything at the business but, after balancing these against the potential we saw in the idea, it seemed right to go for it. And seven years after taking that chance, we were floating our business on the New York Stock Exchange.
Our story is not unique. An increasing body of evidence shows, that for every Mark Zuckerberg, there are many other entrepreneurs starting out in later life. Studies from the likes of the Kauffman Foundation, Duke University and the Founder Institute in the US suggest that startups headed by the over 55s are nearly twice as likely to achieve high-growth as those where people between 20 and 34 are in charge.
Looking at the UK, more and more people are starting up, regardless of their age. According to the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills, in 2012, the age group with the highest percentage of people setting up a business was 35-44 year olds, at 13.6 per cent. This compares to 10.9 per cent of 25-34 year olds and 8.3 per cent of 18-24 year olds.
So what can an entrepreneur in their 30s or older bring to a business? The biggest asset of age is, of course, experience. This definitely applied when we were setting up. We had some great experience in the sector we were going into. We knew our area of business well, a major advantage when trying to build a company and also when talking to investors. More experience equals a safer bet for potential financiers.
We also found we had a better sense for prioritisation and focus. With a restriction on time comes a need to be more disciplined because you have other obligations. There’s not really time for monkey business.
Ultimately, age should be no barrier to a great idea. The risks may be greater when you’re older, but so are your experience levels. And remember that failure can often be part of starting a business. My fellow Zendesk founders and I had been involved in a number of businesses before we hit real success with Zendesk.
Failure can be a chance to learn, but it’s also the point where you feel most challenged – whether that’s having to fire people you really like, or simply standing at a crossroads and wondering whether to carry on with the business.
But if you’re going to take a risk and start your business, whatever age you are, you have to be ready to commit your all – and then some.