Startups, Age and Going For It


Paul Graham, the co-founder of Y Combinator writes about why Not Not do a startup, particularly if you are young and don't have a family and goes through 16 (!) reasons people think not to do a startup and analyzes them.

Lots of good stuff.

The full long essay can be found here.

Excerpt is below.

The other thing that's going to be different is my approach. Instead of being positive, I'm going to be negative. Instead of telling you "come on, you can do it" I'm going to consider all the reasons you aren't doing it, and show why most (but not all) should be ignored. We'll start with the one everyone's born with.

1. Too young

A lot of people think they're too young to start a startup. Many are right. The median age worldwide is about 27, so probably a third of the population can truthfully say they're too young.

What's too young? One of our goals with Y Combinator was to discover the lower bound on the age of startup founders. It always seemed to us that investors were too conservative here—that they wanted to fund professors, when really they should be funding grad students or even undergrads.

The main thing we've discovered from pushing the edge of this envelope is not where the edge is, but how fuzzy it is. The outer limit may be as low as 16. We don't look beyond 18 because people younger than that can't legally enter into contracts. But the most successful founder we've funded so far, Sam Altman, was 19 at the time.

Sam Altman, however, is an outlying data point. When he was 19, he seemed like he had a 40 year old inside him. There are other 19 year olds who are 12 inside.

There's a reason we have a distinct word "adult" for people over a certain age. There is a threshold you cross. It's conventionally fixed at 21, but different people cross it at greatly varying ages. You're old enough to start a startup if you've crossed this threshold, whatever your age.

How do you tell? There are a couple tests adults use. I realized these tests existed after meeting Sam Altman, actually. I noticed that I felt like I was talking to someone much older. Afterward I wondered, what am I even measuring? What made him seem older?

One test adults use is whether you still have the kid flake reflex. When you're a little kid and you're asked to do something hard, you can cry and say "I can't do it" and the adults will probably let you off. As a kid there's a magic button you can press by saying "I'm just a kid" that will get you out of most difficult situations. Whereas adults, by definition, are not allowed to flake. They still do, of course, but when they do they're ruthlessly pruned.

The other way to tell an adult is by how they react to a challenge. Someone who's not yet an adult will tend to respond to a challenge from an adult in a way that acknowledges their dominance. If an adult says "that's a stupid idea," a kid will either crawl away with his tail between his legs, or rebel. But rebelling presumes inferiority as much as submission. The adult response to "that's a stupid idea," is simply to look the other person in the eye and say "Really? Why do you think so?"

There are a lot of adults who still react childishly to challenges, of course. What you don't often find are kids who react to challenges like adults. When you do, you've found an adult, whatever their age.

Posted on April 7, 2007 and filed under Technology.