COMMENTARY

Youth is no guarantee of your startup's success

SO you're young and want to start a fintech or your own business.

You want to throw caution to the wind, build a sparkling unicorn that brings big banks to their knees - preferably before you turn 35 - and be very, very rich.

That's nice.

But before you do, here is something written by a true curmudgeon - but backed by research, yes - that points to three myths that should be debunked about the success behind starting one's own business.

The first myth, and a common one at that, is that startups run by young people are naturally built for success.

Perhaps the assumption is that young people are brimming with creativity and energy, and so are fortified with the right age-specific qualities to take on their own business.

But what should rattle the young, calcium-rich, bones of budding entrepreneurs is that those blessed with salt-and-pepper hair today are more likely to do better than those basking in the bloom of youth.

A recent US study based on a list of 2.7 million company founders who hired at least one employee between 2007 and 2014, shows just that.

The study done in collaboration among professors at MIT, Kellogg School of Management and the US Census Bureau, suggested that a person who is 40 years of age is 2.1 times as likely to start a successful startup as a 25-year-old.

In fact, the average age of a company's founder at the time the company is started is 41.9 years. And out of the fastest-growing companies, the average founder age is 45.

For fintech founders, the advantage of experience makes sense.

These startups need to understand how banking services and technology intersect, and it is often difficult for those without banking experience to understand the true pain points of banking that can realistically be solved through technology.

"The facts stand strongly against the idea that you want to come from outside of the industry," said Benjamin Jones, professor of strategy at Kellogg School and co-author of the report.

It's also why several fintechs that have a plausible shot at success are typically run by ex-bankers, who are also less likely to run their mouths against banks (or at least not openly).

These founders tend to be individuals who see fintech disruption as profitable opportunities that banks cannot efficiently tap on, typically because of the lenders' cost base, regulatory burden, or bureaucratic structures.

Such fintechs may not be eating banks' lunches directly - they find that there is enough to go around the table.

Secondly, it may be a myth that entrepreneurs are young and unbridled risk-takers.

In his book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move The World, Wharton School professor Adam Grant pointed out that many successful businessmen today had started a venture while also keeping a day job.

Take Sara Blakely, who created the famed underwear brand Spanx. While she did start the business while she was under 30, she also sold fax machines full-time for two years while working on her side venture.

Talk about keeping it all together.

Likewise, Nike founder Phil Knight laboured on as an accountant for many years while building his sports retail empire that is now worth more than US$30 billion in revenue.

The point is that these individuals mitigated or hedged the risk of entrepreneurship, rather than pursued a new venture with wild recklessness.

Thirdly, youthfulness does not necessarily equate to success in the innovation space.

Research examining methods to boost creativity suggest that the big motivations are often discipline and productivity.

Perhaps you think writers - including journalists - write while lazing by the beach with a drink in hand. It is true that writers - including journalists - may be well-acquainted with a hip flask.

But there are also lessons on discipline from truly accomplished authors. Japanese writer Haruki Murakami writes for up to six hours starting from 4am.

British author Zadie Smith writes on a computer that has no Internet connection.

Kazuo Ishiguro, who holds a Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote his classic The Remains Of The Day in four weeks. His writing period, or what he dubbed as a "crash", meant that he would write from 9am to 10.30pm, Monday through Saturday.

He'd break for only an hour for lunch and two for dinner. He would not read any mail or take any phonecalls in that time.

There is little romanticism behind a life of creativity. There is more often a dogged pursuit of purpose.

These three debunked myths should keep some youthful enthusiasm in check.

Of course, if you, a wide-eyed sprightly being, would still like to take on entrepreneurship with wanton abandonment, there is that one old chestnut: If you must, start by choosing your parents right.