Plugged in: A programmer shows his style at a New York area hackathon. Young people entering the workforce today have never known a world without the Web.
Venture capitalists in Silicon Valley prefer to fund the young, the next Mark Zuckerberg. Why? The common mantra is that if you are over 35, you are too old to innovate. In fact, there is an evolving profile of the “perfect” entrepreneur—smart enough to get into Harvard or Stanford and savvy enough to drop out. Some prominent figures are even urging talented young people to skip college, presumably so they do not waste their “youngness” on studying.
To a degree, the cult Silicon Valley has built around young people makes sense—particularly in the Internet and mobile technology. The young have a huge advantage because they aren’t encumbered by the past. Older technology workers are experts in building and maintaining systems in old computer languages and architectures. They make much bigger salaries. Why should employers pay $150,000 for a worker with 20 years of irrelevant experience when they can hire a fresh college graduate for $60,000? After all, the graduate will bring in new ideas and doesn’t have to go home early to a family.
These graduates grew up in an era when the whole world was becoming connected. To them, the world is one giant social network in which they can play games or work with anyone, anywhere. This is not a U.S.-only phenomenon. Children in Egypt and China are as Web-savvy as Americans. With better, more timely information at their fingertips than any generation has had in history, the world’s children can rise above the fears and biases of their parents. That is why youth in the Middle East are fomenting revolutions and the Chinese are getting restless. A key ingredient in innovation is the ability to challenge authority and break rules, a passion the Internet is unlocking among a new generation of youth worldwide.
The young understand the limits of the Web world, but they don’t know their own limits. It’s proving to be a powerful combination. Since they don’t know what isn’t possible, the Zuckerbergs can come up with new solutions to old problems. That is why they lead the charge in starting innovative mobile and Web companies.
But great ideas by themselves don’t lead to breakthrough technologies or successful companies. Ideas are dime a dozen. The value comes from translating ideas into inventions and inventions into successful ventures. To do this, you have to collaborate with others, obtain financing, understand markets, price products, develop distribution channels, and deal with rejection and failure. In other words, you need business and management skills and maturity. These come with education, experience, and age.
Indeed, research by my team revealed that the average and median age of the founders of successful U.S. technology businesses (with real revenues) is 39. We found twice as many successful founders over 50 as under 25, and twice as many over 60 as under 20. So everyone has a shot at success, but age provides a distinct advantage.