One unexpected quirk of a Boston tech ecosystem I’m writing about for Boston magazine is the age of the founders: of the four companies I focus on, none of the founders was in their 20s. Some were in their 50s. Most had started other companies, or been executives someplace else. I started asking why, and was told that these companies were solving hard problems businesses have. The famous youth cult in Silicon Valley were largely formed around softer consumer tech, solving relatively easy problems (no offense to Google, of course). Business customers want their problems solved by people with grey hair and demonstrated business competence.
It’s probably confirmation bias on the part of companies, but then I ran across Noam Schieber’s New Republic cover story Silicon Valley’s Brutal Ageism. It’s an old story — dislike of anyone old enough to know better was evident when I was in Silicon Valley (1998 to 2004) — but he starts with a San Francisco plastic surgeon making his money from helping men look like they’re in their 20s again (actually, some men in their 20s want to look younger, too). It’s a brilliant anecdote, really marvelous.
Scheiber’s main thread follows along with a 40s something entrepreneur with several small successes under his belt. It’s hard to say why VCs won’t fund him; Scheiber makes the idea out to seem like an upgraded version of DropBox (meaning DropBox would be a candidate to buy the company for its technology, usually a welcome outcome for VCs). It’s painful entertainment watching the entrepreneur struggle to raise money, kind of like seeing the tenor miss the high note at the opera. (The entrepreneur, Nick Stamos, is based in Boston. He should be talking to the Boston VCs who funded the companies I’m writing about.) There are reasons why older tenors miss high notes and older entrepreneurs don’t get funded, according to these suggestive statistics put together by Harvard Business Review, though they aren’t strong enough to be more than suggestive. The statistics also suggest that Silicon Valley VCs do continue to fund older entrepreneurs, by the way.
But then, people in the Valley who tout youth also do things like make LarryandSergey hire Eric Schmidt, and Mark bring in Sheryl Sandberg. They forced 30-year-old Steve Jobs out of Apple, at the time the right move for the company; Jobs needed seasoning. That Jobs could never have made peace with Bill Gates, the thing that saved Apple from bankruptcy in the late 1990s. He became the Jobs of legend only in his late 40s, when the iPod/iTunes combo took off.
Scheiber’s Botox-craving 20-year-olds is a kind of wake-up slap to the Valley. It should be obvious that experience matters, even in programming. The idea that older programmers can’t learn new languages and techniques is stupid. I’m reminded of the Jon Franklin story about a former slave who learned multiple languages in his spare time, developing fluency in new ones well into his 70s (I haven’t found a link online). Nobody wins when they’re investing in Botox.