Age Hierarchy Part 2

I keep coming back to Marc Andreessen’s post Age and the Entrepreneur and I’m starting to think that his data is overlapping but not right on target. Entrepreneurship isn’t as often about individual creativity as it is about making things happen, gathering people and resources. Most of the more successful entrepreneurs are catalysts, not creators. The research he cites, on the other hand, is about productivity and creativity in what are essentially single-person creative pursuits, including writing, math, physics and the like.

Marc’s post gives us fascinating data on research into productivity and creativity over time, interacting with aging. In general, people in some kinds of endeavors — poetry, pure math, and physics were cited — tend to peak earlier than people in other kinds of endeavors — novel writing, music, general scholarship, as examples.  So in some fields people are at the top of their productivity or creativity in their late 20s, while in other fields it takes them until their 40s.

Here’s the thing: as I went back through the post (I still liked Marc’s summary way more than the original research) it strikes me that we can’t apply that data to entrepreneurship because of this catalyst-not-creative factor. Mozart wrote music,  Keats wrote poetry, Nadia Comaneci won the Olympic gold medal at very early ages, but these were all individual pursuits.

Very few entrepreneurs succeed as individuals. There are exceptions to the rule (Mark Zuckerberg, perhaps? Guy Kawasaki? Seth Godin?) but in most cases the real winners, young or not, are people who get people together and make things happen. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak didn’t just found Apple Computer, they made the whole thing happen by getting financing, sales and marketing people, and product manufacturing to come together at the right time. They were catalysts. Philippe Kahn took Borland International from zero to IPO by pulling people together, in his case even without venture capital. And I’d bet that Marc Andreessen’s being a co-founder of Netscape at the age of 23, for example, wasn’t a matter of individual performance as much as working together with Jim Clark to build a team, win financing, and get going.

Maybe instead of looking at literature and music and math and science for insight on productivity throughout the aging process, we should be looking instead at the kind of attributes that bring people together behind and in support of ideas. It’s not what you can produce in the studio by yourself, but how you can lead and inspire. Do leaders need gray hair to inspire teams? We have examples like Joan of Arc, perhaps, maybe Alexander the Great, and probably Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, but is there data on this element?

My previous post on this interesting topic focused on the  breakdown of age hierarchies in high-tech businesses as younger people assumed command and authority much faster than in traditional businesses. The classic idea of gray-haired people running things was broken down. Only in the high-tech world could you have a senior VP of a publicly traded company riding to work on a skateboard (true story, but not for this post).

I’m still thinking we’re struggling to understand how this works, but it has a lot to do with technical understanding, perhaps we should call that technical brilliance, in a rapidly changing world. Zuckerberg probably couldn’t have founded Facebook as a 40-year-old industry veteran, he wouldn’t have been credible, because some new waves belong to younger people. In the case of the publicly traded  5,000-employee company with the 20-something senior VP, you can guess that he was in charge of IT and the Web, not HR or finance.  Could a 20-year-old person, no matter how brilliant, create a company like Microsoft in an older industry?

I don’t know. Fascinating topic.

— Tim


  • Sara says:

    "Do leaders need gray hair to inspire teams?"

    No – but they do need passion, competence, energy, and people skills.

    Since passion and energy tend to be easier to find among the young, while competence and interpersonal skills grow with time, it's not surprising that very young or very old entrepreneurs are remarkable (and remarked upon). You hear about the exceptions – Steve Jobs, Marc Andreeson – because they are exceptional.

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