Is there a link between age and business success?

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The heated debate on whether there is a perfect age to start a business has been running for some time. But is an entrepreneur's age really that important in achieving success? Lucie Mitchell investigates.

Is there a best age to become an entrepreneur? Well, it’s a tough one to answer because the question generates strong and valid opinion from both sides of the debate.
 
But it’s an interesting debate to have nonetheless, so for argument’s sake, let’s look at the case for both young and mature entrepreneurs, starting with the younger generation.
 
Many recent statistics point to the fact that there could be a link between youth and success.
 
For instance, a survey by the Simply Business Start-up Index found there has been a 29% rise in businesses started by 18-25 year olds since the start of the recession in 2008.
 
This is backed up by figures released by the Office for National Statistics, which show that the number of self-employed young people has grown by 71,000 since the start of the economic crisis.
 
In addition, recent research by The Prince’s Trust revealed that 43% of young people have already made money from entrepreneurial activity and one in four expect to start their own business within the next five years.
 
Meanwhile, many of the world’s hugely successful entrepreneurs – particularly in the technology sector - were very young when they started their businesses.
 
Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg was 20 years old; Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, was also 20; Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, was 21-years-old; and Sir Richard Branson was just 16 years old when he launched ‘Student’ magazine.
 
Starting young
Michael Mercieca, chief executive of business and enterprise education charity Young Enterprise, says that if you are going to be an entrepreneur, you will start young.
 
“When you are young, you don’t have the commitment. There is a higher likelihood that the business may fail, but there is not too much damage – you have that resilience and confidence, as well as the positivity, determination and energy of youth.”
 
Mercieca adds that, in general, young people also have the advantage of being more tech-savvy than their older counterparts.
 
“It just comes as second nature to them and it is much easier these days to start a business online, from home.”
 
Tracy Ewen, managing director of IGF Invoice Finance, says that being young whilst doing something as risky as starting a new business can be an advantage.
 
“You are likely to have fewer preconceptions of the ‘right’ way to do things, finding it easier to challenge the status quo,” she adds.
 
“Younger people are often more comfortable taking risks, feeling like they have less to lose. They are more likely to innovate beyond the widely-accepted boundaries of their sector.”
 
Scottish entrepreneur Fraser Doherty was just 14 years-old when he started his 100% fruit jam business, SuperJam, after his grandmother taught him to make jam using her secret recipe in her kitchen in Glasgow.
 
Still only in his mid-20s, Doherty has experienced quite a bit of success since the launch of his business. In 2007, he became the youngest ever supplier to a supermarket when Waitrose launched his range, and SuperJam now supplies many supermarkets, including Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons, in seven countries around the world, selling about one million jars a year. They are also about to launch in America. On top of this, he has written two books and launched his own charity, SuperJam Tea Parties.
 
“The biggest advantage to starting my business so young was that I was pretty naïve,” he remarks. “I didn’t see any reason why my idea couldn’t be a success. Maybe if I was older, and I had this idea, I wouldn’t have been as open-minded.”
 
In some way, he says, being young can be a double-edged sword.
 
“On the one hand, when I visited supermarkets and factories, they were sceptical of my ideas, partly because of my age, but mostly because I didn’t have any experience or money behind me - really all I had was some recipes and this idea.
 
“But I also found that many people were really willing to help. People are always happy to see a young person with an idea, trying to make something a success.”
 
Aware that he had no experience behind him or any idea of how business worked, due to his age, Doherty knew that he had to find the right help and support to get started. He was pleasantly surprised, however, at the number of people who were happy to help.
 
“People are really willing to share what they have learned,” he comments. “In my case, I got help from places like the Princes Trust. I also had a mentor, and when I wrote to the companies that I am inspired by, and asked them for advice, they were happy to give it to me.
 
“When you are starting out, you really have to be a sponge, ask lots of people for advice, tell everyone your idea and see what they think; and as long as you have that attitude, there is definitely help and support there.”
 
The benefits of experience
But what about the more mature entrepreneurs? The survey by the Simply Business Start-Up Index found that the over 65s, known as the so-called ‘silver startups’, now account for more than 4% of all new business owners.
 
Teresa Folkes, director of client services at the Prince’s Initiative for Mature Enterprise, points to research that shows that the success rates of those over 50 are higher than those under 50.
 
“Based on a global entrepreneur monitor study, 48% of over 50s who have set up their business will survive over five years, compared to 29% of people who are 18-49,” she says.
 
“Obviously the best age [to start a business] would depend on the individual, but our belief is that setting up a business when you are over 50 is a viable option, which is under-considered by that demographic.”
 
The government has also recently demonstrated that older entrepreneurs deserve just as much support as the younger ones, by removing the Start-Up Loans age limit so that those who are over 30 and want to start their own business will also be able to access funds.
 
Folkes welcomes this decision, adding that all people should receive the same help to start up a new business, regardless of their age.
 
She also believes that people who are over 50 and are starting a business, have got the benefit of the skills and experience that has built up over the years.
 
“There is a level of maturity and potentially more financial stability, as well as the all-round skills experience generated through different industries and roles,” she says. “There is also a clearer focus, in some instances, of what they are trying to achieve.”
 
Simeone Salik, co-founder of BLINDSINABOX, was 65 years old when she started her business with her two business partners, who were in their 40s and 50s respectively. The company sell pleated paper temporary blinds that stick onto a window with a self-adhesive strip.
 
She came up with the idea after moving into her retirement home with her husband and realising she needed some temporary curtains to use until she was ready to buy more permanent ones.
 
“When you’re older, you certainly have more experience and you realise, from working, that you have to plan ahead, which I don’t think younger people do as much as older people,” she comments.
 
“Also, we started with not much money and, in a way, you haven’t got too much to lose. It’s been a big learning curve, which has been wonderful.”
 
Salik, who is now in her 70s, used her previous experience working in PR to market the business.
 
“When we first launched the website, I approached many newspapers and magazines and we have appeared in lots of them.”
 
In 2008, the same year the website was launched, they also appeared on the BBC’s Dragons’ Den. Their pitch was successful and they received investment from James Caan and Duncan Bannatyne. 
 
“It was a fabulous day and it helped our business unbelievably,” she says. “Because we were successful, our episode has been replayed all over the world and that is how we have been going five years. Our business has grown quite considerably because of it.”
 
Age is not important
Both Salik and Doherty believe that it doesn’t matter what age you are when you start a business.
 
“There is no best age to become an entrepreneur – just when you feel like it,” says Salik. “As long as you are healthy and have a good mind-set.”
 
Doherty adds that, nowadays, anybody can start a business, regardless of your age, gender or background.
 
“If you have a good idea and you’re not afraid to put it out there, people will be more than happy to listen and help,” he remarks.
 
“People may have a dream of what they want to do, and tell themselves that now isn’t the best time, but as soon as you start thinking like that, you are never going to do it. So the best time to start is now, whatever age you are.”

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Attitude is More Important than Age

 Anyone starting a business or innovating in an established arena will face the inevitable "can't be done" or "won't work" from those already there.  Yet history is littered with people who ignored advice from the "experts" and pressed on with their idea.  However, those who didn't make it because their idea was a turkey don't make the history books.

Generally innovation involves denying the conventional view.  The founders of Google went it alone after their idea for a new kind of search engine was turned down by the existing players who saw no future in internet search.  Dyson found no interest in bagless vacuum cleaners in the industry, but read the market correctly.

Those who are young are more likely to reject the status quo and are also (being without dependents) more likely to take risks knowing that the distance to fall is not that great.  Older people with family, mortgages, and years of habit are understandably less prepared to take a jump into the unknown.  But I don't think there is an age blueprint for success.  Having the idea, the ability to exploit it, belief in the product, and personal conviction are attributes that people either have or do not.  The other factor that is not part of the individual is a market existing for the idea.

Success can simply mean being in the right place with the right product at the right time.  It is not however a given that success will always follow success.  The history books are also full of people who had only one product in them, who tasted success and were then unable to follow through.  Often because an ability to innovate was not accompanied by an understanding of the market and how that market changes.  Sinclair was unable to transfer success in electronics into electric vehicles.  Dyson followed the bagless cleaner with a washing machine that flopped.  A market did not exist for the product, or the market was not ready for it.

Knowing why products flop is vital for an entrepreneur seeking success.  Studying the failures rather than the success of those for whom opportunity knocked at just the right time should be the name of the game.  For every Zuckerberg, Dyson, and Sinclair who pushed on the door at the time it was unlocked there are many more who sunk life savings into a turkey and ran out of money before they found an open door.  Having the energy and the indestructability of youth can assist in pushing on those doors, but those who are older have an advantage in knowing which doors and how to push and when to pull.

Cagemeister's picture

Perfect age?

No reference is made to the fact that a very high proportion of youth are unemployed/unemployable in today's climate.

With the influence of the internet, it is therefore statistically logical that a lot more will try  starting a business.

Likewise, many of the older generations who have become redundant will not have generated the skills during employment that will assist them in becoming enrepreneurs.

In my case, I started a fourth business at the age of 71 in a field where I had no practical experience, but was comfortable within the market.

Now at the age of 74, I'm looking forward to taking on more businesses where again I have no practical or technical knowledge, but because I see the potential and know that it can be achieved.

In many cases, it's a mind-set.

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