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Are you ever too old to be an entrepreneur?

Monday, 24 January 2011 | By Paul Wallbank

In backpacker circles, when you turn 30 people ask, “What’s wrong this guy?” What you can get away with in your 20s, you can’t get away once you’ve passed the big “three-oh”.

 

A similar phenomenon exists in the business world, both for employees and business owners – that there are age limits on what someone can easily do. Like the backpackers, it’s more a perception than a reality.

 

Once upon a time you were past it at 50 years of age. Through the 1980s, 90s and the early part of this century that “past it” age contracted, along with the deskilling of the workforce, to 45, then 40 then 35.

 

In the eyes of many in the corporate world today, should you not have an established corporate career path by your mid-30s then you are well “past it” and destined for a middling career and income.

 

With entrepreneurs a similar quandary exists, once over 40 there’s a feeling that the aspiring business owner should just stick to buying the local doughnut or lawn mowing franchise. Start-up land is no country for old men.

 

The underlying cause of this view is the belief every successful business founder is rich beyond their dreams by 30 – Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg come to mind.

 

That’s clearly silly given most businesses never come close to the successes of Microsoft or Facebook. But it’s a persistent belief nevertheless.

 

When the entrepreneur turns 30, things begin to get tricky; sleeping on a friend’s sofa, working 18-hour days and living on instant noodles isn’t an option when you have kids, a partner and mortgages.

 

At the same time, family, friends and potential employers start to ask, “If this guy’s so good, how come he isn’t a millionaire?”

 

To make things more difficult, risk adverse peers start bragging about how their safe, well-paid job is allowing them to buy second homes or go on holidays most business owners can’t contemplate.

 

Probably the hardest thing though is that the doors of the corporate world start slamming shut. For a 40-year-old entrepreneur who has been running their own businesses for 15 years, it’s difficult to get a job in the business world and any position available won’t recognise the skills developed in running your own enterprise.

 

Similarly, the warning to anyone with a decent corporate career who chooses to leave their safe office job to run their own business is usually, “How can you risk throwing all of this away?”

 

Risk is the difference between the ages; once you’re over 40 with there being little prospect of a plan B involving returning to a nice corporate position, then the cost of failure is a lot higher.

 

In some ways this can be better; an individual staring down the prospect of a long, poverty stricken retirement has a very good incentive to get their business right and doesn’t have time to waste on speculative or “me-too” projects.

 

The idea there’s an age limit to launching new, innovative businesses and products is silly, but it’s a persistent one nevertheless. The great thing though with being your own boss is you don’t have to pay attention to other people’s dumb ideas and this one is a dumb as it gets.

 

Paul Wallbank is a speaker and writer charting how technology is changing society and business. Since 1995, Paul has setup and run four businesses, including PC Rescue which he grew to be a national IT support business. Paul currently works with government and businesses to help them navigate the challenges and opportunities of the new digital economy. http://paulwallbank.com