To become very successful, as in billion-dollar entrepreneurs, there seems to be two “best” ages. One age is influenced by the opportunity. The other depends on your readiness.
One group of billion-dollar entrepreneurs succeeded in emerging industries, such as PCs in the 1980s, Internet 1.0 in the 1990s, and Internet 2.0 in the 2000s. They mostly started their companies in their late teens to mid-20s. This category includes Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple), Michael Dell (Dell) and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook). Dick Schulze (Best Buy) was the old man in this group. He was in his mid-20s.
These entrepreneurs jumped in when the industry was emerging. They realized that if they did not get in, others would and establish their beachhead. They did not wait to finish their education or to get business experience before starting. Gates, Zuckerberg and Jobs dropped out of college. Schulze left his job selling for electronics manufacturers. They jumped into industries that were emerging, but they did not start the industry and were not “first movers.” But since they were in an emerging industry, there were no established dominant corporations to squelch young companies from establishing a foothold. In fact, corporations and corporate executives were often at a disadvantage because their corporate resources were targeted at potentially fading industries, and their own “old” industry experience suddenly became obsolete.
The second group of highly successful entrepreneurs started their companies in existing industries rather than in emerging ones. They started either when they were ready or when they saw a new trend that offered them an opportunity for entry. Most of them were in their late 20s to late 30s. This group includes diverse entrepreneurs such as Glen Taylor (Taylor Corporation and owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves), Bob Kierlin (Fastenal), Steve Ells (Chipotle) and Michael Bloomberg (Bloomberg).
Taylor succeeded in the wedding invitation industry where he worked as a teenager when he went to college. He bought out his previous employer and grew it from about $100,000+ in revenues to billions. Kierlin was in his late 20s when started his first store to sell nuts and bolts with a few friends. He hired a manager and still kept his job with IBM until the store became profitable. He then learned how to dominate his industry. Ells was a chef who founded Chipotle at the age of 32 when he decided to sell organic burritos. His ultimate goal was to open a gourmet restaurant. Elon Musk started Tesla in his early 30s by developing and selling a battery-powered car when existing companies had not succeeded.
These entrepreneurs entered existing industries when they were ready, which happened to be in their late 20s- late 30s. They then dominated their industry by finding niches or improving on their competitors. This group got into the existing industry after finishing its education and getting real-world experience. They entered the industry based on their passion or found an opportunity, and then jumped on a trend or improved the business model to dominate the industry. Elon Musk did this with Tesla. Ells did it with Chipotle. Some entered a fragmented industry and became better than their competitors. This was the strategy of Kierlin (Fastenal) and Amancio Ortega who was also in his late 30s when he started Zara.
The key to know when to launch your business on a full-time basis is to match your skills, talent and experience with the opportunity and with your competitive advantage. In an emerging industry, get in when the industry is emerging in order to dominate it. In an established industry, get in when you have the experience to emerge and dominate your niche. The above suggests that this happens in the late 20s-late 30. So why are universities organizing incubators, business plan competitions, mentor programs, and all the other strategies to encourage young people to start their business before they have the needed experience and maturity to dominate?
MY TAKE: Every rule has its exceptions. Col. Sanders was in his 60s when he launched KFC. The best age to start your business seems to depends on the maturity of the industry or the stage of your maturity. If the industry is emerging, get in before leaders have established impregnable positions. Google entered before others established a dominant search engine. If there is no emerging industry, get the experience you need and emerge when you can be competitive, which seems to happen in the late 20s – late 30s. Universities may need to rethink their approach. Teach students entrepreneurship but, like fine wine, don’t push them before they are ready.