Too Young to Know It Can’t be Done

The young do not know enough to be prudent, and therefore they attempt the impossible – and achieve it, generation after generation.
Pearl S. Buck

Ask people what makes entrepreneurs successful and you’ll hear a familiar list of adjectives; agile, tenacious, resilient, opportunistic, etc.

What you don’t hear is that often they didn’t know any better.

It Can’t Be Done
I was just rereading Jessica Livingston’s book Founders at Work, and a common thread through the stories reminded me that there is a type of technology innovation that occurs in startups when a founder/team simply doesn’t know what they’re attempting is impossible.

Steve Wozniak at Apple building the Apple II floppy disk controller without ever seeing one. The original Fairchild Semiconductor team of Moore and Hoerni racing to build the first silicon diffused PNP and NPN transistors and ending up with Planar transistors and integrated circuits. The list of “I just did it without knowing it was impossible” appears time and again as a common thread in stories about technology innovation.

I got to see this first hand, when I was lucky enough to be present as an incredibly small team designed and built the Zilog and MIPS microprocessors.  And at Ardent I watched an equally minuscule company tackle building a supercomputer and at again at E.piphany building a data warehouse.

Almost all these innovations were built by people in their 20’s with a few of the old-timers in their 30’s. (One of the common themes was the physical effort to get these projects completed –  entrepreneurs staying up for days to finish a project and/or sleeping at work until it shipped.) I flew more red-eyes than I can remember, and also had days where I just slept in the office with the engineers.

Age Means Wisdom
It’s not that older entrepreneurs can’t start or build innovative companies – of course they can. Older entrepreneurs just work smarter and strategically. (Though my hypothesis is that funding from risk capital sources – angels and VC’s- don’t follow a normal distribution curve for older founders.)

And if they’re really strategic older founders hire engineers in their 20’s and 30’s who don’t know what they’ve been asked to do is impossible (exactly the strategy of my partner Ben at E.piphany.)

Older Means You Know Too Much
However, as I’ve gotten older I’ve observed that it’s not just that stamina that changes for entrepreneurs. One of the traps of age is growing to accept the common wisdom of what’s possible and not. Accumulated experience can at times become an obstacle in thinking creatively. Knowing that “it can’t be done” because you can recount each of the failed attempts in the last 20 years to solve the problem can be a boat anchor on insight and imagination. This not only effects individuals, but happens to companies as they age.

When you’re young anything seems possible.

And at times it is.

Lessons Learned

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50 Responses

  1. “They can because they think they can.” Virgil

    One way to reset your mental map is to change fields or change industries, this can give you “newcomer’s eyes” on an established set of problems.

  2. “One of the traps of age is growing to accept the common wisdom of what’s possible and not”

    True, but older entrepreneurs will also review what has been done and ask how can we solve a problem using a differnt approach rather than pushing full speed ahead without knowing what is impossible.

  3. The ability to invent has NOTHING to do with age.

    Steve Wozniak was a genius at electronics. He had more “experience” in electronics than anyone else 20 years older than him. He succeeded because he had the motivation to build something and the knowledge to execute it.

    The same is true for every example that he cited. The inventors, in each case, had much more “experience”, within those fields, than anyone else. They used this to create something new.

    The younger you are (ie no family), the more time you have to tinker with things. And I think this plays a big role.

    You can rattle of hundreds of counter examples: Oprah, JK Rowling, Mark Pincus …

  4. another attempt to resurect the Sequoia ageeism controversy. a sure bet for a blog. a not so great contribution to our collective enlightment. you can do better.

    • Sequoia ageeism controversy?
      Link? Reference?

    • http://www.ischool.berkeley.edu/newsandevents/news/presscoverage/20100112wadhwa

      “During a reception at the Computer History Museum, Sloan Dean David Schmittlein was interviewing Douglas Leone, a partner at the venture capital firm Sequoia Capital and Sloan alum. Leone was dispensing advice about entrepreneurism when he let slip a remark that made me do a double take.

      “Leone told the audience that Sequoia focuses on younger entrepreneurs because people over 30 aren’t innovative….”

      • Mohammad,
        I’m not surprised.

        I’m waiting for someone/anyone to provide quantitative data on how risk capital (angel to VC) is distributed by age for first round funding.
        I think we’d find that a) it depends on the industry, b) that it skews younger.

        If so, than we can begin to ask why. Keeping in mind that correlation does not imply causation.

        steve

    • Steve, I’m going to reply, but I just want to make sure you know I am a huge fan and read everything you write so I can learn from you. But… Vivek has written a lot about his research with the Kauffman Foundation, and from what I can understand, founders tend to be older than what is reported in the press:

      http://techcrunch.com/2009/09/07/when-it-comes-to-founding-successful-startups-old-guys-rule/

      • Mohammad,

        The Kauffman Foundation report is a great starting point for a discussion. I link to it in the blog post above. It’s a major contribution.
        However, it needs to be read very carefully.

        The founders referenced in the study are not the typical venture/angel funded technology startups. According to Krisztina Holly, one of the reports authors, “only 11% and 9% for VC and angel financing.” It’s those 20% that I would classify as “Scalable Startups” and where I am really interested in understanding the founders ages.

        The rest of the enterprenuers fall into a category I would call “small business.” Nothing wrong with that, but it makes the age comparison an Apples and Oranges discussion.

        In summary, the Kauffman report, which lots of people now use to point to the fact that entreprenuers average age is 39, may say that. But it may not. There is not enough information in the current report to understand the founders age in technology startups who get risk capital.

        steve

    • I guess where I read it differently from you is that I equated “high growth” with “high technology”. But I see your point – the report *may* say this, but it may not.

      If I can fall back on anecdotes though, all the “young” people I have seen who have done anything amazing only did so because they had more experience than older people did, not because they were younger.

      I once met a teacher who went into academia because he wanted to know why music, mathematics and computers were the only fields were children could attain highly advanced standards at a young age. Perhaps that is what you are seeing with supercomputing start-ups etc, but not the biotechnology ones. Note that even the gifted prodigies in music, maths and computers only got there after many years of hard graft.

      I think Sequoia types are confusing variables… but then again, who am I to speak when their “confusion” is leading to such good empirical financial results :-)

    • Thanks Mohammad but taking the helm about the Sequoia controversy. You are definitively more articulate and informative than I am. And less lazy, for sure.

      @Steve: Steven Kaplan at the University of Chicago started a research in 2008 about “Which CEO Characteristics and Abilities Matter,” with Mark Klebanov and Morten Sorensen, August 2008.
      Being an alumni, I can ask him if age is a explanatory variable of success. If you’re interested.

    • Ahem, here’s the presentation of the study:

      http://faculty.chicagogsb.edu/steven.kaplan/research/kks%202009.pdf

      Some interesting discussion about different PE and VC CEOs characteristics.

      But no trace of age as an explanatory variable. Sorry.

    • We might have the cart before the horse. Do VCs invest in more young founders, as there’s simply more of them than older founders? Or are young founders more attractive to VCs than older founders, as the older founders are less likely to need the VCs and all the conditions that comes with their money?

      I’m with the Sequoia ageism theory, though I expect their stance might be entirely justified in their business context. It seems that the sort of high-growth business founded by the the older set just don’t need VC money, or they have more bargaining leverage that a VC can tolerate, as older founders already bring substantial resources with them. Sequoia are just being smart about who to target: they want the young, resource poor founder where Sequoia have enough leverage to get what they want at a bargain price. By targeting the younger founder, Sequoia is just being efficient.

      Take Y Com as another example: for the sort of funding they provide most older founders just take a sabbatical. The target demographic for Y Com is the mid-twenties founder (someone resource poor but time rich), so it’s not surprising that any book written by one of their management team has an age bias that aligns with this bias.

      So, if we define our sample set as “founders of the high-growth business which seek risk capital”, then there is a good chance that the age is a factor. More work needs to be done to prove this one way or the other.

      Other studies have done a good job of point out the folly of considering age an indication of creativity/innovation. http://www.newsweek.com/2010/08/27/older-workers-are-more-innovative-than-the-young.html

  5. Not all “older” people are devoted to the status quo. In fact, some older people come from a generation characterized by a culture of rebellion where anything is possible.

    Not all young people are as fearless as you suggest. In fact, many have little confidence that people would pay for their ideas and are intimidated by anything that would potentially compete against Zuckerberg and Facebook.

    Just saying . . .

    Katherine Warman Kern
    @comradity

  6. Totally agree that accepting the conventional wisdom that something is impossible, or getting trapped in looking at how everybody else has failed to accomplish it, is a boat anchor on creativity.

    On the other hand, realizing that a problem is trickier than it seems on the surface, and leaning from others’ attempts to solve it (including what worked as well as what didn’t) is hugely valuable.

    It’s a choice everybody makes for themselves, independent of age.

  7. Wisdom becomes stupidity, when you assume lessons learned 5 years ago hold true without exploration.

  8. If we had books written about all the young people who failed trying to invent the impossible, then we could compare the data. However, as presented, the anecdotal evidence and possible confirmation bias is worthless and if taken seriously, dangerous.

  9. Thats a generalization, and as such has little value.
    I’m 38 years old programmer, so kind of old for the start-up world and the software industry, though I just can’t help to do things that seems impossible. What’s the point in doing anything else?
    It’s not that I’m odd, I just didn’t accept the idea that age should crash your dreams.
    What age has given me is a new perspective, that no matter how impossible it may seems, there is a way to do it. Is enough to take a look out there to get a deep confirmation that we live in an era of choice and mine is to keep believing.

  10. [...] The advantage of being a young entrepreneur. Yes, younger entrepreneurs generally have more stamina for putting in the hours necessary to get a start-up off the ground. But Steve Blank says there’s another reason they have an advantage over older first-time entrepreneurs: “they don’t know any better.” [...]

  11. I think a major consideration is that young people — in general — are able to bear more risk and shirk the status quo more than their older counterparts. It’s not that young people are intrinsically more inventive, but they do have “less to lose” by going out on a limb and taking big risks, and this makes them more likely to attempt the “impossible”.

    Who wants to do that with a family, mortgage, etc.?

  12. Couple of questions for the group
    1. How does this apply to someone who has aged in a consulting company (more traditional do as you are told world) but realizes the boredom after a couple of years?
    2. Does it make them over the apt age of wanting to build something? or Does it make them someone old about the make the mistakes which someone made few years back?

  13. Is there a retirement home for oldprenuers over 30?

  14. We also need this “foolishness” in the sales process, otherwise, you are liable to sit around saying “nobody will pay for this, nobody will buy my product in beta mode”. Meanwhile somebody who doesn’t have the battle scars of sales experience will be out there selling it to someone.

  15. Another example, as I understand it, is the genius of Bill Atkinson, who invented QuickDraw at Apple (first used on the Lisa, then on the Macintosh). He saw Dan Ingalls’ BitBlt graphics on the Alto at PARC, and didn’t realize it “couldn’t be done” with 68000 native code (the Alto used Alto microcode, a whole different, ultra-complex, high performance animal). [Bill also later invented and developed HyperCard.]

  16. [...] The advantage of being a young entrepreneur. Yes, younger entrepreneurs generally have more stamina for putting in the hours necessary to get a start-up off the ground. But Steve Blank says there’s another reason they have an advantage over older first-time entrepreneurs: “they don’t know any better.” [...]

  17. I would add that ‘older’ entrepreneurs also tend to ‘not know it can’t be done’. Maybe it has to do with being outside an industry and approaching it from an entirely different experience set. Think of legendary founders outside the tech world such as Ray Kroc and Colonel Sanders. They never knew that what they had in mind couldn’t be done either. Either way, it seems to me that it’s not age per se, but how you think and, as you say, energy, that are integral to coming up with, and acting on, bold new ideas.

  18. [...] Too Young to Know It Can’t be Done The young do not know enough to be prudent, and therefore they attempt the impossible – and achieve it, [...] [...]

  19. I studied to be a scientist when I was in my twenties; the odds were against me (the APS estimated that only 2% of my graduating class would get permanent jobs in Physics) and I didn’t have the kind of inspiration it takes to (i) bring a new idea into the world and (ii) face down opposition from the establishment and eventually become the establishment.

    Now, 12 years later, I do have an idea to change the world. I’m emboldened by the fact that many people think that what I’m trying to do is impossible, because it means I won’t have as much competition. I’ve got a level of conviction that will help me overcome any kind of difficulty or opposition. Getting older, I feel the walls closing in, and I feel I’ve got very little time and I’ve got to do something big.

    Few people in their 20’s really have that kind of urgency. There are certainly people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, but most young people are working in entry-level jobs, doing drugs, or otherwise wasting their youth. If you look at many of the people that were the heroes of the baby boom generation, say, Jerry Garcia or Hunter S. Thompson or Timothy Leary, all of these were people who were older than the boomers. Some older people take the experience they have in life, put that together with the feeling of urgency, and really do something.

    When the World Series of Poker started in 1970, the players were a bunch of Texans, many in their 50’s or 60’s, who played an obscure variant of poker. By the 90’s, the WSOP was getting big, and younger people were playing Hold ‘em. The large number of players plus the influx of crazy-aggressive players made the WSOP more of a competition of luck and endurance, and made the WSOP a young man’s game. Once more, older people lead the way, and younger people follow.

    And, yes, that’s the point of the “cult of youth” we’re seeing in the VC/Angel world. Young people, by and large, are better followers than older people — that’s why the U.S. Marines recruit people out of high school. Young people will throw themselves at “charge of the light brigade” projects, work 80-hour weeks, not care about health insurance, and generally do what they’re told. Older people have lived through project failures, and have a broader perspective that don’t make them as easy to boss around.

  20. Each day we age we lose the magic.

  21. Two words: Selection bias.

  22. This is analogous to the way nature works the evolutionary thing. However, in some situations, it can cause you to use up many young people before you either end up with a new “thing” or reinforcement of an old truth.

  23. Ok, let me get this straight. The young are stupid and that is to their advantage. That seems a little ridiculous to me. Sure, it sounds romantic and might help sell articles and there are, in fact, a small number of young people who take on impossible tasks and succeed. I would argue that there are many more young people who take on impossible tasks and fail. You just don’t hear about these people or read articles about them. Regardless of age, it is to the entrepreneur’s advantage to be able to access risk/reward and the amount of effort required.

  24. The story feels good, but since only the persons, which got it done are mentioned, it is biased. The twenty something people not getting their project done are left in the dust.

    Most people, which are older than 40 and have some brains in then, have a job, which does not allow then to do funny, new things. People in the twenties living at their parents can do these things and are not distracted by things like rent and food.

    So it’s true, that big innovators you hear of will be younger people, since older ones are mostly part of a team and will not be mentioned. If you become older, people don’t like you sleeping in the garage and send you under the bridge, where most projects will not finish.

  25. How old is the average VC, and their investors?

  26. I don’t think age is a factor. Is more about taking risk and having luck. How many young people go into startups. How many make it big? Not many.

    Is not intelligence. Many are intelligent.

    Is not work. Many work 16 hours a day (being there done that).

    Is a combination of guts, skill, knowledge , contacts, intelligent work, experience, social engineering (for good or evil, let’s not forget that many that make it big are experts on being disonest ) and luck.

  27. Sometimes knowing something CAN be done is an advantage too. A few years ago I went to class when I was fifty because my mainframe knowledge was worthless at getting a job.
    An extra challenge was posted on a board to solve a puzzle. A fellow student calculated that on the current machines we had available, it would take 6 months for it to calculate the solutions.
    I said no-way. I used mathematical principles I learned in grade school, high school and college. built a prototype that finished in 5 minutes. I verified there were logic problems, but didn’t take the time to fix them because I went back into the workforce.
    I achieved this because I enjoyed mathmatics while I was young. I sought out niches of math while my fellow students were going – math -> Yuck.
    This backs knowledge being used to do something others say can’t be done. The “other” was around 20.
    Oh, yea. During my break from work I went back to the puzzle, wrote the code from scratch, fixed the logic errors I insisted on making again and got it to work in 50 minutes on a machine twice as fast as the class machines.
    I tweaked the logic by replacing the string additions with string builder logic because I knew the builder should be faster and I wanted to see how much faster. Ran in 20 minutes.
    Played with the process order 15 minutes.
    Got a new machine twice as fast, played around with the strings some more. (Only create the strings when needed.) 2 minutes.
    Back to the half speed machine. 5 minutes.
    The original class computers should finish under 15 minuts
    Only the young are persistent? Ha!

  28. I think this article is very short-sighted in its conclusions.

    Overwhelmingly, most start-ups begun by young entrepreneurs and\or technicians fail for the very fact they they do not have the experience to make wise decisions. The individual examples noted in the article are far and few in between the massive wastes of time spent on new ventures.

    Secondly, the products these actual geniuses produced were highly compartmentalized. Start implementing them into larger creations such as a rocket and suddenly you have experts from all age levels on the job. And most of the people who invented a lot of what we have today were in their 40s and 50s due to the knowledge required.

    As one poster stated, the people who did accomplish such inventions were highly intelligent and were geniuses in their chosen field. I went to high-school with such a person who was a good friend for quite a while. He couldn’t spell or write an essay very well and had no use for school. However, as soon as he graduated he was scooped up by MIT for his expertise in electronics. In fact, I doubt even Wozniak had anything on my friend.

    At 12 years of age he disconnected his family’s house from the township’s electric utility to have his house run on its own generator that he designed and built himself. The only thing the electric utility was used for was to power the thing… It was saving the family so much money that the utility company filed suit against the family…

  29. This time spell checked:
    From my own experience I believe the following to be largely true:

    When you are young you have all the enthusiasm and energy and significantly less of the common sense and wisdom that comes with age.

    When you are much older you have all the common sense and knowledge from life experience but significantly less enthusiasm and energy.

    If you are lucky sometime between these to stages you will have a good idea, of its time and the will to make it happen.

  30. “Too” bad spell-check won’t catch “these to stages”. Otherwise, I agree with Phil about these “two” stages.

  31. Heh, I am approaching the 30 mark but thankfully I have a really intelligent partner who is in her early 20’s so I can use my skills to make her great ideas a reality…

  32. This is very interesting. But I’m not sure if this is 100% correct.

    I wonder which of new technologies in very recent history are invented by a 20s something entrepreneur? I can think of only of Google.

    It seems like inventions which are driving this new Web 2.0 startups are coming from 40s something people (DataDomain, BEA, Amazon EC2/S3, Oracle, etc.).

    Maybe our obsession with “young” is reason why Silicon Valley is becoming Silly Valley?

    I could be wrong.

  33. [...] “As I’ve gotten older I’ve observed that it’s not just that stamina that changes for entrepreneurs. One of the traps of age is growing to accept the common wisdom of what’s possible and not. Accumulated experience can at times become an obstacle in thinking creatively. Knowing that “it can’t be done” because you can recount each of the failed attempts in the last 20 years to solve the problem can be a boat anchor on insight and imagination. This not only affects individuals, but happens to companies as they age. Too Young To Know It Can’t Be Done.  [...]

  34. Being young and idealistic are not synonymous. Being young and foolish are not synonymous. It is all about your state of mind, discipline, focus, and influences.

  35. It took me years to realize that my first startup back cratered because there were simply not enough people, data & behavior on the internet in 1997/1998 to feed a collaborative search algorithm (http://bit.ly/9LIFEg). We were on Mission Impossible. Hopefully, age does not ossify our sense of possibilities but rather allows us to think with greater multidimensionality and scope about what we engage in.

  36. I’m 43 years old and just abandoned a successful career in public affairs consulting to start a consumer web service for TV audiences because I had a great idea and I know it solves a real problem no one else is addressing.

    If I had a dime for every time someone told me I was too old to do this, the company would have 3 yrs of operating capital before we had to start generating revenue.

    What’s ironic is that I look much younger than my age, so for 20+ years in politics I had to fight age discrimination from people who assumed I was too young to know what I was doing. Now I have to fight age discrimination from people who assume I’m too old.

    It’s also ironic that Steve and others essentially attempt to create a self-fulfilling prophesy by telling older entrepreneurs that success for them is impossible (or at least improbable).

    I will handle this new age discrimination the same way I handled it before. I’m simply going to prove wrong everyone who says I can’t do this.

    So, Steve, I respect you immensely but you are wrong. If you, or anyone else in VC, angel investing, or entrepreneurship thinks someone over 40 doesn’t have the stamina or creativity to change the world, then it is you who are dinosaurs and not those of us to don’t know – or refuse to believe – our success is impossible.

    • Richard,

      Steve’s blog post was not as negative or absolutist as you interpreted it, I think you missed this part:

      “It’s not that older entrepreneurs can’t start or build innovative companies – of course they can”

      If you are as thin skinned as you sound, founding your company could be an extremely painful experience.

      James

  37. I like your writings Steve, but you got this one wrong.

    Harland David Sanders, born 1890, founded Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1952, at age 62.
    The seed capital was his $105 social security check.

    Easy to look up the facts on Google.

    Some industries – alternative energy, solar panels, cancer drugs and semiconductors require broad range of knowledge and experience just to consider the problems being solved. An innovative type will use this knowledge to see beyond the obvious and search for new answers.

    A 17 or 22 year old is OK for the next facebook or google, but not for many other businesses.

  38. Maybe this is why 9 out of 10 start ups fail? Perhaps it would be interesting to look at data tracking the success rate of start ups by age of founders.

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