Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham once joked that when it comes to first-time startup founders, “the limit [age] in the head of investors is 32”. I was only kidding in part: The perception persists that the best founders will be 19-year-old wunderkinds like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, or 30 at the latest.
Research suggests that this attitude may be wrong. A 2020 report found that the most successful American startups, those in the top 0.1% in growth in their first five years, were launched by founders with a average age of 45 years. A 50-year-old entrepreneur is nearly twice as likely to create a high-growth startup as a 30-year-old rival, according to the researchers.
Today, a large number of founders in their forties and fifties are launching and running well-funded startups across Europe. Here we meet some of them, learn why they changed in midlife, and find out more about the pros — and cons — of founding a tech startup after 40.
mid life crisis
There is a theme among founders over 40. Most left a stable, well-paying job to launch a startup after coming to grips with the fact of their mortality or questioning their legacy.
“You can say it was middle age, the point where you need to do something else instead of buying a bike. I decided to try co-founding a startup,” says Sabrina Maniscalco, a Helsinki-based professor of quantum computing and co-founder and CEO of software company Algorithmiq. After more than a decade in academia, Maniscalco launched the startup in 2020 at age 46.
“On the one hand, I was a bit bored with academic life, and on the other hand, I was looking for new challenges,” she says.
It was the sudden death of a colleague of a similar age that prompted Andy Yeoman to leave a $500,000 executive position at a California tech company to become his own boss.
“It made it clear to me that life takes twists and turns,” says Yeoman, who was 47 at the time and now runs insurtech Concirrus. “When the email came out announcing the fact that he had passed away, I almost did a ‘cut and paste’ in my head. I thought ‘if you change his name to my name, and that fact to my fact, that could be me’. I didn’t want that to be my story, so I did one of those random things: I just walked in and said, ‘I quit.
Dominic Dinardo had a similar reaction when his father passed away in 2008. The Scottish-born businessman was at the time a well-paid executive at Marc Benioff’s software giant Salesforce.
Dinardo’s father, Tony, had designed the church in which his own funeral was held. Looking around him during the eulogy, something clicked for his son. “I was thinking, ‘After burying my dad, this church is still here. In fact, in a way, he left a legacy,” says Dinardo. “It makes you think, ‘What is my legacy? What am I doing?”
It would be 11 years before Dinardo left corporate life at 48 to co-found the consumer goods software startup Aforza. “It wasn’t a Road to Damascus, it wasn’t a flash, but it sparked something.”
A reputation (and money) to lose
Most twenty-somethings have little to lose and a lot to gain when trying to launch their first technology company. But when former Virgin Money boss Jayne-Anne Gadhia launched fintech Snoop in 2020, the business world was watching. A well-known figure, Gadhia was 58 years old and had just left Salesforce after a brief six-month stint at the helm.
After investing his own cash and raising seed capital, Gadhia launched the money-saving app with co-founding friends from previous jobs.
You have a bit of reputation to lose. So in a fun way, it’s a little more risky,” she says. “Not long ago this friend said to me: ‘I thought you were crazy, after the race you had to do on your own, start over from scratch’… I think that’s it in a way. You think, I’ve done many, many years, and I want to stake it all on something starting from scratch?
I regret not becoming a startup founder sooner and struggling with (slightly) lower energy levels
Several founders over the age of 40 acknowledge that the relentless pace of being a startup founder can take its toll, while others say they regret not taking the plunge sooner.
“Every conversation I have brings me back to ‘I wish I had done this sooner,’” says Gadhia. “What we did for Virgin [Money] It really was all the hard work, all the entrepreneurship, but we didn’t reap the rewards, because that went to the people who put the money in.”
Maniscalco has only taken one or two days off since 2020, and at times he has thought “this is horrible”. Yeoman also finds that energy levels can drop: “I set the pace of the organization, and that’s exhausting.”
Experience and contacts
Middle-aged founders have decades of experience. They have an idea of who to bring on board as CTO and have faced challenges before. As Dinardo says, “it must have been useful for something”.
Says Gadhia: “I remember several of my colleagues and I said, ‘God, if you were a couple of people with no business experience setting up a big new company in a garage or something, how do you know what to do?’ There are so many things that we were lucky to understand and contacts that we were lucky to have had during those years of experience.”
Peter Briffett co-founded based in London employee finance app Wagestream in 2018 at 45 years old. A serial entrepreneur, he had previously launched and sold several start-ups, including Living Social and YPlan. “Unless you have cut off all your relationships and no one wants to work with you again, it is easier to form an initial team [in your 40s],” he says. “There has to be some benefit to getting older, and part of that has to be that you have more contacts and you can build a team quickly.”
Self-confidence as a startup founder over 40
Founders over 40 also report having a self-confidence and level of self-awareness that they simply did not possess in their early years, assets that many believe have helped them make better decisions as founders.
“If I were younger, I would be nervous and unsure of myself,” says Maniscalco. “Especially for a young woman. [founder] it is more difficult, because many young women doubt themselves more than men”.
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Briffett says the belief he had at age 25 “that he could do it all” is gone. Later in life “don’t pretend you can do it all.” He gives an example: Wagestream has focused on the hospitality, retail and healthcare sectors. “I think if I was 25 years old, I probably would have tried to sell Wagestream to everyone from manufacturing to logistics,” he says. But he knew from experience that “you can try to be too much for too many and ultimately get no traction at all.” [sectors]”.
Barney Wragg, who founded Karakuri, the “robot chef” startup in 2018 at the age of 45, he says it’s a huge advantage now to know “when to work until 2 a.m. and when to stop,” as opposed to when he was in his 20s.
Investor Bias Goes Both Ways
For some first-time founders in their 40s with established contacts at the top of the startup ecosystem, it’s really as simple as sending a single email and receiving $1 million.
“I wrote to a former leader, a very important person in my development,” says Dinardo. “I said, ‘I’m thinking of building on this technology, what do you think? Will you bless this idea? And the person responded by saying, ‘How much money do you want?’… In fact, it took me 24 hours to figure out the correct answer to that question: all I had done was produce a couple of slides. The answer was a million dollars.”
But some older founders talk about running into some venture capitalists’ preconceptions when raising funds, particularly younger analysts.
“I would say there is probably a negative age bias in a lot of investors,” says Wragg, who was an early employee of chipmaker ARM and hadn’t tried to raise cash for an early-stage startup since the 1990s.
Wragg says getting back into that pool was “difficult for him in his 40s.” While “historic tech funds were staffed by founders,” many now have “pretty young analysts with limited or no experience within the startup community making investment decisions,” he says.
Wagestream’s Briffett agrees that sometimes venture capitalists require founders to be over 40 years old to insist on their commitment.
“I’m older than most investors now, but like Madonna, I’ll still be singing at 49,” he says. “I think VC money should flow for all ages. If you’re an eloquent 20-year-old with a grand vision, why can’t that be funded? I just think that should work both ways. The older you get, the more it’s like, ‘Why do you still want to do this? Do you have the energy to do this?
“Any VC financing a growing company knows that it’s a high-energy thing, it’s not like you can have another life. So you have to be able to convince them that you’re in.”
Only the beginning?
Has their breakneck experience left the founders wanting more?
Gadhia “definitely” has plans for startups and “is currently having some conversations with a different set of friends about launching a new business.” “I think it’s because there’s nothing better than starting your own business and seeing it prosper,” she says.
Maniscalco is focusing on Algorithmiq for now, but wants her experience to inspire other women in their 40s to start a startup.
“It’s less common for women to really make a drastic change after 40. You have a family, you think you’re settled,” she says. “I would love to see more women my age take risks. In many cases, life is unpredictable, nowadays the labor market is unpredictable, so if you are passionate about something, there should be no fear of change.”
Naomi Ackerman is a freelance business writer and tweets from @nomiackerman.