There's no golden age to start a company, but there is definitely a timer on when we can withstand failure. The question is — when does that timer expire for us?
As it happens, our numeric age isn't really what's driving our "Founder Expiration Date" — it's about how our age may reflect our relative appetite for risk. That's really a nice way of saying "What's the oldest I can be before I'm too old to recover from failure?"
Every year that goes by is another year we can't get back. When we're in our 20's and starting a company, we have our entire adult life to make up for the risk of failure. In many cases, we may not have a family or even a mortgage to worry about. At most, our failure may result in some lost years and a shitty make-up job afterward. It's not awesome, but it's very survivable.
But then we enter our 30's, and often we start taking on those wonderful liabilities, and now for the first time if we muck it all up, there are real consequences. Moving back in with our folks at 25 wasn't fun, but moving in with them at 35 is a whole lot less fun. That said, while we have consequences, this is still the only time in our lives where we have more years in front of us than behind us. It's a great time to manage our downside risk (time) but it's also the last time we get to gamble like this, so we have to make it count.
But then in our 40's something really starts to challenge us — if we burn these valuable years, we really don't have a ton of time to make up for them. Not only that, but our dependencies have dependencies. We're thinking about funding college educations, weddings, and, what's this — retirement?
Now it isn't just about maximizing our upside, it's about being legitimately concerned about our downside because we're burning our best income-earning years, and at the other end of those years finding a promising gig is going to be harder and harder.
At this point, if we miss, there's a fairly good chance that we will permanently change our financial trajectory for life. It's not about "I can make this up later" it's more about "I may never get the opportunity to have that major trajectory again." On top of that, our support structure is mostly eroded, meaning if things tank, we're on our own.
As we round the corner into our 60s and beyond, we're no longer thinking about risk in the same way. Every dollar we "lose" as either burnt up investment capital or a lack of potential income is a dollar we will almost certainly never earn back. Not only that, we're pretty damn tired, deservedly so, because we've been grinding for 40 years straight!
Our appetite for risk is almost entirely tied to how well we may have set ourselves up in the past for future failure. We may have put away some nice savings or some sort of residual income stream. Maybe we can afford to roll the dice because our bills are going to get paid either way (nice work if so!)
At this stage though, the conversation turns to "If not now, when?" where we can't kick the can down the line any longer. These are the highest stakes we'll ever take on, and yet, it's also our last time to bet the farm.
Every one of these stages is a balance of our risk, not our age. As we enter different epochs of life, we have to assess how willing we are to lose and suffer the consequences of that loss at that stage. There's nothing stopping us from trying at any age, only what we are willing to withstand if things don't work out.
If we continue to believe we can manage our downside, then we confidently start at any age.
What to Expect in the First Year (podcast). As Founders, we think we know how our products and businesses will look and function for years to come, but as with time, it's nearly impossible to expect the unexpected.
Why No One Tells Founders "It's over, move on." No one ever actually tells Founders it’s okay to quit. No one except other Founders, of course.
Retiring Early is a Broken Concept Retiring isn't really our end goal, so we shouldn't aspire to it. What we really want is to shape our life the way we want it to be.
Wil Schroter is the Founder + CEO @ Startups.com, a startup platform that includes Bizplan, Clarity, Fundable, Launchrock, and Zirtual. He started his first company at age 19 which grew to over $700 million in billings within 5 years (despite his involvement). After that he launched 8 more companies, the last 3 venture backed, to refine his learning of what not to do. He's a seasoned expert at starting companies and a total amateur at everything else.