A post by Meredith Somers @ MIT last week here caused me to think about my own entrepreneurial journey. I had entrepreneurial tendencies early in my career – always trying to emulate my grandfather (reference here) – however I didn’t “co-found” a significant company myself until I was in my 30’s.
I love to back smart young high risk/return folks straight out of college (or even younger). Over the past 10 years @ Koa Labs and Founder Collective – I’ve been involved in backing many young entrepreneurs. At Koa our investment criteria included “first time entrepreneurs with technical/scientific background” – which skewed the age of founders in the Koa portfolio toward the younger side.
However statistics matter and as MIT Sloan professor Pierre Azoulay and PhD student Daniel Kim point out in their research – the average age of entrepreneurs who’ve started companies and gone on to hire at least one employee is 42 years old.
In my opinion – the key takeaway of this research is that there is a distribution of entrepreneurial talent in the world. There are “extreme entrepreneurs” insert cliche reference here to Musk, Gates, Jobs – but these individuals are all many standard deviations out from the center of the entrepreneurial distribution. Most of us fall somewhere closer to the center and and it can be dangerous to interpret the behavior of the folks that are extreme entrepreneurs as a model for what will work for the rest of us. Key message – figure out what works for you rather than trying to emulate the outliers.
As I reflected on what worked for me on my journey, there was one thing that stood out as a key – active mentors. After grad school I did at least 3 significant gigs which I have now come to think of as “entrepreneurial apprenticeships“. In each case I had fantastic mentors that taught me what I needed to know in order to be my own type of entrepreneur. First working with Joe Liemandt, Christy Jones and Phil London @ Trilogy & pcOrder.com, then Frank Moss @ Bowstreet and Steve Holtzman @ Infinity Pharmaceuticals. These mentors and the lessons that I learned while working with them and the people they attracted molded my entrepreneurial instincts over more than a decade after grad school. The list of lessons was long and hard won over 10+ years including :
- The ins and outs of bootstrapping and venture financing
- Challenges of setting & managing expectations with investors, employees, customers, spouse & kids
- The emotional roller coaster of believing that things can be better – technology, people, business – and then fighting against all odds to make it so
- People in startups need to be inspired emotionally AND it is essential to treat their emotional commitment and personal sacrifice with respect/honor
- The list goes on…
When I partnered with Mike Stonebraker & his academic cohort to co-found Vertica back in 2004 – I felt that I had an “unfair competitive advantage” not only because of amazing the technical ideas/inspiration from Mike & team – but I had learned so many hard lessons working on 3+ startups and was prepared to put those lessons to work on a project I co-founded.
Perhaps the takeaway is that for many of us who have entrepreneurial tendancies – our entrepreneurial journey is likely different from that of the extreme entrepreneurs – Jobs, Musk, Gates – and in my case was primarily driven not by youthful energy but more by many “entrepreneurial apprenticeships” which were not only rewarding professionally – but also provided some of the best friendships in my life.