What's the best age to start a business?

Richard Branson was 16 when he launched Student Magazine, Charles Flint was 61 when he founded the business that later became IBM, but is there a peak age to become an entrepreneur?

According to one venture capitalist, "they peak at 25, by 30 they’re usually done". Comparing entrepreneurs to professional athletes, he says that this is because young entrepreneurs are more creative and imaginative and are willing to put their whole lives into their start-up. "It’s not a guess, this is a data driven observation," he says.

But, this only applies to consumer internet entrepreneurs, apparently enterprise and hardware start-ups perform better with older founders. And of course there are founders who peak way beyond 25, though the VC adds: "Those tend to be the repeat success founders, the rules don’t apply to them."

The recent Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, however, found that the highest rate of entrepreneurial activity in the US is in the 45 to 54 age bracket, with the 55 to 64 age bracket not far behind. So perhaps, this isn’t such a young person’s game after all...

While some might think that our intellectual abilities peak in our mid-20s, others argue that they continue to develop with age. According to a recent study published in Psychological Science, both parties are correct.

Neuroscientists at MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital gathered data from nearly 50,000 people aged 10 to 71 on a wide range of online cognitive tasks. They found that there were substantial differences in the relationship between age and intellectual abilities. For example, performance on processing speed peaked and began to decline very early, around high school graduation. Verbal and visual working memory tasks plateaued in the mid-30s, emotion-perception gradually crested in late middle-age, and vocabulary continued to steadily climb into the 60s and beyond.

"These findings motivate a nuanced theory of maturation and age-related decline, in which multiple, dissociable factors differentially affect different domains of cognition," the authors write. "On the practical side, not only is there no age at which humans are performing at peak on all cognitive tasks, there may not be an age at which humans perform at peak on most cognitive tasks."

This view of human ability – one that acknowledges different types of intelligence that peak at different times – helps to explain why some entrepreneurs arrive at different times in life, why we have young tech geniuses such as Mark Zuckerberg, who was just 19 when he founded Facebook, and also why some entrepreneurs achieve success later in life – Ray Kroc opened McDonald’s when he was in his early 50s and Harland Sanders started KFC in his 60s.

Engineering, programming and coding are all skills that are ideally acquired before middle-age – and this research suggests that it would be significantly harder for someone older to master these skills – but entrepreneurship itself is not a profession reserved for the young. As well as the Kauffman Index showing that the highest rates of entrepreneurship in the US are being led by those over 45, a separate study looked into the backgrounds of more than 500 successful engineering and tech companies founded between 1995 and 2005. It discovered that the average age of their founders was 39 – what some might consider nearly middle-aged.

Ultimately, though, what all this research suggests is that there is no 'best time' to become an entrepreneur, there are benefits in both starting young and starting old.

Thumbnail from gettyimages.


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