Huzzah for Middle-Aged Startup Entrepreneurs

Many communities are obsessed with making themselves attractive locations for Millennials on the theory that recruiting and retaining skilled and educated young workers will boost the entrepreneurial economy. Come to think of it, I might have contributed to that line of thinking. But maybe localities should be appealing to an older crowd. Successful start-up entrepreneurs are more likely to be middle-aged than youthful.

Source 2017 Inc. 5000

According to data published by Pierre Azoulay and three other economists in a National Bureau of Economic Research paper, “Age and High-Growth Entrepreneurship,” Americans are more likely to start up new enterprises between the ages of 35 and 45 than at any other age. The likelihood of starting high-growth enterprises skews even older.

“The view that young people are especially capable of producing big ideas — whether in scientific research, invention, or entrepreneurship — is common and longstanding,” the authors state. “Famous individual cases such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg show that people in their early 20s can create world-leading companies. Meanwhile, venture capital firms appear to emphasize youth as a key criteria in targeting their investments.”

Younger people are less beholden to existing paradigms of thought and practice, according to this train of thought, and they are less distracted by family obligations. But Azoulay et al. find that the most successful entrepreneurs tend to be middle-aged, not young. “The mean founder age for the 1 in 1,000 highest growth new ventures is 45.0. … We further find that the ‘batting average’ for creating successful firms is rising dramatically with age.”

Mid-life entrepreneurs have had more time to accumulate human capital (deep experience and knowledge in their field), financial capital (money), and social capital (contacts and relationships), yet the still maintain high levels of energy and ambition.

Bacon’s bottom line: A half year ago, I compiled some research for a client comparing economic trends for the City of Richmond, and the counties of Henrico, Chesterfield and Hanover. With its walkable urbanism, Richmond has positioned itself within the region as the preferred abode for Millennials, and many businesses are relocating from suburban locations to downtown Richmond in order to recruit the Millennials. I expected Richmond, with all that youthful energy, to outpace the counties in start-ups and entrepreneurship.

Richmond does, in fact, host more fast-growth start-up companies, as measured by 2017 Inc. 5000 entries, than Chesterfield, Hanover or Powhatan counties. But Henrico boasted the most of all, accounting for nearly half of the 29 fast-growth companies in the entire metropolitan area. Henrico has precious little walkable urbanism to sell; land use is dominated by traditional sprawl-style development. What the county does have is lower taxes, good schools, low crime, upscale retail, and neighborhoods with spacious houses — primary considerations for middle-aged families raising kids.

I think Henrico could benefit from more walkable urbanism, which would make a killer land use in a jurisdiction with low taxes, low crime, and good schools. But the larger point is that a middle-aged population and entrepreneurial vitality need not be incompatible. Indeed, the two traits go hand-in-hand.

Cover photo: NBER Digest, July 2018