Startups are for the young and hungry. You’re thirty? You’re too old. If you haven’t made your first million by 25, you’ve missed your chance. If you’re not working 130 hours a week, you’ll never create the next Google.
One of the key myths of startups, especially in Silicon Valley, is that they are for the young. Larry Page and Sergey Brin dropped out of Stanford in their 20s to start Google. Steve Jobs started Apple from his parents’ garage after he dropped out of college. Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook at university and is now a multibillionaire at 27 years old.
But look behind the headlines, and you’ll find a cadre of experienced, older entrepreneurs who find ways to balance the hectic pace of startup life with other priorities such as friends, family and, well, a life. I’m comfortably into my 40s and on my sixth startup. Having spent 10 years in the pressure cooker of Silicon Valley — at startups as well as Google and Apple, I have some perspective on how to continue to be a successful startup entrepreneur as you get older.
An experienced entrepreneur brings a different perspective.
Paul Graham says:
“In a startup, things seem great one moment and hopeless the next. And by next I mean a couple hours later.”
An important lesson you learn after a couple of startups is that many of the crises you encounter turn out not to be quite as desperate as they seem in the heat of the moment. After going through that a few times, you learn that staying calm helps the team stay calm — which makes everyone better at resolving the problem. You also learn, hopefully, to distinguish the problems that seem critical from the ones that actually do threaten your company’s future and require urgent action.
Many startups, especially in Silicon Valley, have a macho culture of working extremely long hours. I vividly recall a long stretch of consecutive 100+ hour weeks at Apple early in my career — which came on top of a 3 hour commute to San Francisco. The quality of my work noticeably declined, and it took me months to get my focus and energy back afterwards.
There are a few, apparently superhuman, people who can working extremely long hours over sustained periods without compromising what they do.
Steve Jobs, for example, worked prodigious hours without it appearing to affect him at all. But the vast majority of us simply don’t work as well if we drive ourselves too hard. It’s much smarter to make sure that you — and those you work with — have a decent work-life balance. You learn to prioritize what you spend your time on at work, and focus on the things where you can make a difference: working smarter, not harder.
As you get older, what you care about changes.
I have a family now and it’s incredibly important to me that I can get home in time to read a story to my daughters most evenings. This is the most important reason why I’m not prepared to spend every waking hour at work any more. But I believe that the accumulated experience I bring, and the ability to focus on the things that matter, compensates for this.
Most engineers start out believing they have to solve every problem they encounter themselves. One thing you learn is that is a limit to how much work you can get done alone, even if you can work 130 hours a week.
At some point, in order to have a larger impact, you have to figure out how to lead a team of people: five engineers will get so much more done than you working alone, no matter how good you are. And if you can guide a team to success, you can be more ambitious and will create better products.
The thing is, it’s simply fun to work in startups. You work with smart, passionate people who want to create great products that will change the world. The excitement and commitment is infectious.
So if you can bring relevant experience, figure out how to spend your time wisely and lead teams to success, you can be an effective startup entrepreneur — no matter what your age.
Dan Crow is the CTO of Songkick. He was previously a technical lead/manager at Google, co-founder of Blurb; Chief Scientist at Unicru and engineer at Apple.