I must admit, using the headline question “Is 30 too old to start a company?” is a great way to generate comments and links. And, no doubt, in certain business niches — VC-backed online startups based in the Silicon Valley, campus-vicinity restaurants, youth fashion, pop music or anything related to pop-culture — the intuitive answer is yes.
However, the Vallywag folks are going to flunk “Freakonomics” if they attempt to prove anything statistically convincing with that chart accompanying the post. Valleywag writes, “a quick check on the great tech companies of the last three decades shows a pretty brutal rule. The most spectacular successes are launched by founders still in their twenties.” As I feel certain that reporters and bloggers will soon be quoting this “research” to prove something, I feel compelled to say, while fun and entertaining, the chart proves nothing. First, the list is said to be of “great tech companies of the last three decades” when it should be labeled “tech and online media companies we could think of that would prove our point that if you’re over 30, you are too old to start a company.” At least they admit their data was crunched by Valleywag, which is right up there with saying your data was crunched by The Onion.
In reality — or, as we say, the real world — successful companies (and failing ones) are started by teenagers and retirees and every age between. If one has a serious interest in this topic, I suggest reading the book The Origin and Evolution of New Businesses by Columbia B-School School professor Amar Bhide. First published in 1999 and based on data about Inc. 500 companies in 1989, the book is not a how-to or beach read. It is a serious attempt to explore the economics of starting and growing a successful business. Bottomline: The factors that go into business success are far-reaching and varied. Trying to peg success to one factor, like the age of the founder, is folly.