How young is too young to start a startup?
The answer is that there’s no such thing as being too young to start a company. Just look at Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos, who started his first company, LinkExchange, at 23 and sold it to Microsoft for $265 million less than two years later. Drew Houston, co-founder and CEO of Dropbox, started his first company, Accolade, at 21. Mark Zuckerberg was 19 when he first launched Facebook. And we all know the stories of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.
I work with entrepreneurs of all ages, and I see a huge advantage to being a young founder: They don’t know what cannot be done. They are unfazed by problems that other people have not been able to solve. They believe that things will be different for them. They will not be discouraged by seemingly insurmountable obstacles – they will find a way forward. They will not shoot down ideas before they are properly explored, believing that there can be a gem in there somewhere. They also have an unbounded and irrepressible amount of energy, enthusiasm and drive. This is a huge asset when it comes to recruiting top talent, and motivating a team to push the frontiers beyond what seems possible. The healthy stamina that youth brings is very helpful too, considering the long hours they are taking on.
However, that confidence can sometimes be a double-edged sword. A friend of mine who was working on his first startup once said to me: “Elaine, I can read a book on anything, and then do it better than anyone who has done it a million times before.” I was struck speechless by his statement. In the final analysis, he lost a lot of time and energy learning entire new disciplines from scratch and reinventing the wheel, when a short phone call to someone relevant could have saved him some money and reduced his time to market.
There is a lot that one can leverage with youth, but if a young entrepreneur does not temper it with a readiness to listen well and take advice, then he or she might end up on a long and winding road to success. The good news is that it is easy to get help. Entrepreneurial hubs like Boston, the Bay Area, Austin, Boulder and so forth have healthy startup ecosystems full of highly qualified people who are willing and available to help while asking nothing in return. If you are a young entrepreneur doing something for the first time: Don’t be shy – lean on this support system. You will be surprised at how much free consulting you can get if you only asked.
Another easy way to get this support is to develop a team that fills gaps in your experience and perspective. A team comprised entirely of mini-me clones can only lead to group-think, which is the worst thing you can do to your team and business. If you are a young technical founder, find team members who have proven industry experience in business development or marketing, and vise versa. This holds true for all teams, including startups led by older founders. A little diversity goes a long way, especially in a startup.
As for financial concerns, youth can work for or against you. On the one hand, young founders are less likely to have a spouse, kids or mortgage. Working for stock and living on frozen dinners may be OK for a while. It can also be easier for them to relocate to a different city or even another country. On the other hand, younger founders are less likely to have successful startups already under their belt. Raising seed capital could be tough with an inexperienced team, and with little savings and no earnings, bootstrapping – much less paying for groceries — can be challenging.
While youth brings many benefits, I personally believe it is important for aspiring entrepreneurs to finish college, as young adults continue to develop and mature both personally and professionally through their college years. Focusing all of one’s energy on starting a company can make it hard for a young person to develop the skills that will bring one to full potential. Also, entrepreneurship is a learned skill, and college is a great place to gain that knowledge through classes, internships, and labs. The networking and resources available to aspiring entrepreneurs should be fully taken advantage of during those college years.
The bottom line is that there are many more “pros” than “cons” for being a young entrepreneur. If you are 20 and passionate about starting a company, then go for it! Your startup ecosystem stands behind you and we are ready to help you succeed.