Boom in elderly entrepreneurs, but of what type?

June 30, 2009

This is an excerpt from the Idea of the Day blog of  The New YoSenior citizen retrainingrk Times:

Today’s idea: The elderly — a drag on the economy? “The United States might be on the cusp of an entrepreneurship boom—not in spite of an aging population but because of it,” a report says.

Aging | “Contrary to popularly held assumptions, it turns out that over the past decade or so, the highest rate of entrepreneurial activity belongs to the 55–64 age group,” writes Dane Stangler of the pro-entrepreneurial Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. …

Excerpts from that Kauffman report:

  • In each year from 1996 to 2007, entrepreneurial activity was greater for Americans age 55 to 64 than it was for those age 20-34.
  • Average age of founders of technology companies in the U.S. was 39. Twice as many over age 50 than under 25.

I’d expect, but don’t know whether these older entrepreneurs follow the typical patterns of experimental innovators.

Stangler touches on the subject in a footnote that comes close to addressing the contrasting styles of younger conceptual innovators and older experimental innovators:

An acute concern among some readers may be that, as the population’s age distribution continues to shift, we will suffer from a dearth of innovative companies.

The difference, at least intuitively, between a 55-year-old and a 25-year-old company founder may be in their innovative potential — that is, it could be more likely that the older entrepreneur starts a “lifestyle” company while the younger entrepreneur starts a world-changing firm. Such a concern makes sense, but more research needs to be done.

A counter-intution might be that an older worker’s experience — while possibly limiting his or her innovative thinking — might allow him or her a greater scope for innovation that challenges existing companies.


Now for something completely different: Bill Gates

July 14, 2008

There’s good reason to be optimistic about the departure of Bill Gates from his role atop Microsoft, and it’s not a mean-spirited one.

By focusing his attention on his charitable foundation, taking aiming at malaria, AIDS and poverty, he is putting himself in a position where he could once again achieve a dramatic breakthrough, as he once did in the computer world.

Gates is a conceptual innovator, a type of inventor who usually achieves the most at an early age. Gates, for example, founded the company that became Microsoft at age 19.

When conceptual innovators get older, they tend to get stale. But not if they switch to a new field of inquiry. When they start afresh in a new area, they can achieve new successes — much more so than if they stayed put. As the Arts of Innovation Web site states:

When you reach middle age, don’t worry if you find yourself in a mid-life crisis, because a mid-life shift could bring with it the potential for new breakthroughs in a new field. For mid-life role models, consider Benjamin Franklin, Walt Disney and David Hockney.

Similarly, conceptual innovator Samuel Morse abandoned a career in art in mid-life and soon invented the telegraph.

“To choose such formidable foes [as malaria and poverty] in the middle of your life takes bags of self-belief, but it is also pragmatic,” as The Economist notes.

That magazine’s recent article on “The Meaning of Bill Gates” describes a conceptual innovator who knows it’s time to move on:

“His genius was to understand what he needed and work out how to obtain it.”


“As with many great innovations, Mr Gates’s vision has come to seem so obvious that it is hard to imagine the world any other way. Yet, early on, he grasped … hings that were far from obvious at the time, and he grasped them more clearly and pursued them more fiercely than his rivals did.”

Now, perhaps like Disney, Morse, Franklin and Hockney, he can make new conceptual breakthroughs in his newly chosen field.

Aging innovators know it: Amazing ideas aren’t the only way to go

January 21, 2008

Elizabeth HazenThe ability to come up with brilliant new ideas tends to decline with age, but that’s no problem for people whose innovations aren’t dependent on brilliant ideas.

They’re innovators who are experimental, rather than conceptual. For them, aging isn’t such a handicap, since they typically improve with experience. But they do face a particular problem of their own:

People tend to forget that they exist.

Despite the examples of middle-aged and older experimental innovators from Henry Ford to Sam Walton, experimental innovators are often overlooked when thinkers theorize about innovation.

A recent example this pervasive forgetfulness is Janet Rae-Dupress’s piece “Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike” that the New York Times published Dec. 30.

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Alan Greenspan as experimental innovator

September 23, 2007

I’ve always thought of former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan as an experimental innovator, primarily because his major achievements were from age 61 to age 79, the years when he led the Fed.

But he also has a very Cezanne-like way of downplaying his achievements and never being satisfied. In the most recent example, during his current book tour promoting “The Age of Turbulence,” Greenspan told Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show”:

“I’ve been in the forecasting business for 50 years (but) I’m no better than I ever was, any nobody else is. Forecasting 50 years ago was as good or as bad as it is today, and the reason is that human nature hasn’t changed. We can’t improve ourselves.”

Like fellow experimental innovators Robert Frost and Mark Twain, he’s grappling with the complexities or human nature, not the simplicity of a bold concept.

Marc Andreessen explores age and achievement, needs more info

August 24, 2007

Marc AndreesenIn his blog, Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen has started to explore the topic of age and the entrepreneur. He has begun with research from 1988 by psychology Prof. Dean Simonton at UC-Davis, which concludes that productivity declines from a peak near the beginning of a career — the basic pattern for conceptual innovators.

In the process of collecting data, I hope that Andressen will acquaint himself with the more recent work by economist David Galenson at the University of Chicago that also finds a second pattern — experimental innovators whose achievements increase with age and peak later in their careers. This second pattern appears in many — perhaps all — fields, including painting (Cezanne), poetry (Frost), film making (Hitchcock), etc., as regular readers of this blog have heard, probably ad nauseam.

By lumping the two types of innovators together, as Simonton and other researchers such as Harvey Lehman have done, they let the experimental pattern get lost in the overall average. As a result, they wrongly conclude that innovators overall tend to peak early in their careers, when that’s only true for some.

Andreessen, by the way, seems to fit the pattern of a conceptual innovator. He wrote the Internet browser software Mosaic, the basis for Netscape, at age 21 as an undergraduate in Illinois.

Add Facebook inventor Mark Zuckerberg to ‘young genius’ list

August 16, 2007

Mark ZuckerbergSoftware remains a hotbed of young conceptual innovators. The latest example of young geniuses is Facebook developer Mark Zuckerberg, who invented the social networking site at age 19.

A new Newsweek article focuses mostly on the prospects for the site, which he refused to sell to Yahoo for a reported $1 billion, but it also puts the Harvard dropout’s conceptual side on display.

For example, “the nub of his vision revolves around a concept he calls the ‘social graph.’ As he describes it, this is a mathematical construct that maps the real-life connections between every human on the planet. Each of us is a node radiating links to the people we know.

“ ‘We don’t own the social graph,’ he says. ‘The social graph is this thing that exists in the world, and it always has and it always will.’ “

Add Zuckerberg to the list of other young men who made early breakthroughs in the computer industry. For example:

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Reverse-directory creator Jack Cole had his breakthrough at age 27

August 8, 2007

Conceptual innovator Jack Cole, who died last month, made his crucial breakthrough in 1947, at age 27.

Today’s obituary in the New York Times describes his youthful achievement, which led to the creation of a series of reverse directories for major U.S. cities:

“The first city directories in the United States were published in the 1780s. Though most were arranged alphabetically by last name, a few early ones were organized by street address. For the next century and a half, compilers of these directories trudged door to door, painstakingly recording the residents of every apartment in every building on every block in the city.
“What Mr. Cole did, starting in 1947, was to use I.B.M. punch cards to streamline the process, turning an ordinary telephone book into what today would be called a searchable database.”