You’ve seen today’s popular image of the startup founder: An unkempt 20-something just out of college, probably wearing jeans and a graphic tee. Mark Zuckerberg is, of course, the archetype, but that singular picture of the modern tech CEO is pervasive throughout pop culture. Just look at the crew of goofy protagonists in HBO’s hit show Silicon Valley. The main character, Richard Hendricks, looks as close to middle school as he does adulthood. But are tech startups really the exclusive domain of people too young to rent a car? Absolutely not. The truth is that, like me, many chief executives of fledgling tech companies earned years of experience before launching their own enterprises. In 2014, a Harvard Business Review analysis of three dozen top Silicon Valley companies found that the average age of their leaders at the time of founding was 31. The median was 30. In fact, not only is it common to launch a tech business in your 30s—it’s smart. Here’s why:
What you’ve learned as an employee will make you a better boss
At 29, I became an executive officer at a NASDAQ company where, at one point, I was 19 years younger than the next youngest executive. I distinctly remember wondering if I should dye some gray into my hair to close that visual gap. Now, as a 34-year old CEO, I’m on the other end of the spectrum, surrounded by young, energetic world-beaters born after Disney’s Aladdin, a staple of my youth, premiered in theaters. I’ve worked for a bevy of companies and, after serving as both boss and employee, believe that experiencing all levels of the working world has made me a better leader.
Founders in their 30s must realize their age isn’t a liability. It’s an asset.
People typically launch startups based on personal experience. They recognize a need and try to meet it. Spending a decade in business environments will, without question, afford the 30-something founder with an enhanced ability to recognize market gaps that he or she should wouldn’t have earlier in life. Just consider all of the inefficiencies you spotted at the places you’ve already worked. The best business ideas often result from identifying unpursued opportunities that, without those years in the working world, you wouldn’t have known existed. Your personal experiences create a unique path to personal success. Follow the path.
You’re the ideal CEO for older investors and partners
Investors and corporate partners are typically in their 40s and 50s and, in my experience, are sometimes reluctant to give significant sums of money to or trust in CEOs as young as their own children (the average age of our first round of investors was about 50). Thirty-something founders, however, are better positioned to deal with older outside interests: They’re experienced enough to appear trustworthy and dependable but still young enough to appear credible in the tech space. Perception, as the cliché goes, is reality. Leverage the perception.
You’re also the ideal CEO for young employees
As CEO of a tech startup, most of your employees will almost certainly be younger than you are. At our company, where the median age is about 25, everyone but my founding partner, the chief technology officer, is younger than I am. But, like those older investors and corporate partners, the age gap for the 30-something CEO isn’t so significant that you feel out of touch—personally or professionally—with a youthful crew. You are as immersed in technology as they are but also have years of experience and past success that will give them more faith in you as their leader.
Ask what you don’t know
With age comes wisdom, so take advantage of it. You should, after a decade of work, know enough to know that you don’t know everything. Young entrepreneurs often surround themselves with older mentors and readily admit when they need advice. No one expects the 20-something founder to have it all figured out, but the 30-something founder shouldn’t feel any different. Don’t be afraid to admit when you need direction. Remember, no one has all the answers.