Every couple of weeks I get asked by someone if I think they should take the leap and really dedicate themselves to their idea. Is it a good time of year? Are they the right age? Do they have enough of a cushion?
My advice is that there usually isn’t a good reason to quit a comfortable full time job to focus on a startup, and that you should be able to run a startup on the side until you know if it will fly or not.
The bad thing about that advice is that I really don’t have a clue if it is good advice or not. I have been one of the lucky few who has always been working on a startup with my own great-to-good-to-mild-to-terrible levels of success.
Statistically, most people take the leap and attempt a startup in their mid to late 30s. I’m not sure why that is, I suspect it is a big group of people who have been making nice salaries since their late 20s, have the house well on it’s way to being paid for, and have the college fund tucked away for the kids.
When is the best time to attempt your first startup? I am going to take a leap and say that High School is actually the best time. There is absolutely zero risk, but there is generally absolutely zero capital as well. While you are in the teenage years induced haze you can be at your most creative, but you also have a low probability of completely executing on something, unless you are above average (which I expect you are).
After that it is off (for most of us) to university. University or College can be one of the most creative and optimistic times of your life. Alas, it is also probably the poorest time you have known. However, intellectual capital is high, and there are likely dozens of potential partners for you to bring in to your startup, friend in Computer Science can be your paid-by-ramen dev team, and your are still young enough to have no problem taking a chunk of risk.
You are done of university, saddled with debt and reality hits. Time to get a real job. I have no idea what a fresh-out-of-school job pays these days, but my guess is that between paying student loans, getting your first car and buying a house (or paying ridiculous city rents), you aren’t exactly flush with capital. You are however probably starting to feel more responsible than ever, you are still in touch with a lot of old university friends, and you are making all sorts of new contacts out there in the work world. You’ve learned to network and for the first time can probably get the introductions you want to all those angel investors and high-quality potential business partners.
Then you sail through your late 20s and all of a sudden you are in your 30s. You are now either married or living a just-as-expensive bachelor/bacelorette lifestyle. You finally have those student loan bills under control however, and your disposable income is on the way up. This is all giving you enough confidence to start to think big, but the fact that you are 30 has also got you thinking that you want to make the 20million$ sooner rather than later.
By your late 30s and early 40s you are, for good reason, at the peak of what is considered your startup life. Reality for most people is, however, 3 kids, a mortgage and bills to pay. The upside is that you have never had so many good contacts, such a well established track record or so much access to capital. Depending on who you are, this could also be your most creative time and you are also more disciplined than ever.
Into your 50s, well, it gets more varied here I think. You may be stuck saving like a madman for retirement, or you may be flush with your own cash from a few good investments along the way. Either way, you probably like to get to bed a little earlier, and are a little more methodical in how you approach things, but if you have learned anything along the way, you are a lot more careful and far more successful at everything you do in general. You’ve also learned a hell of a lot about people and how to work with them, and who you shouldn’t bother working with at all.
I realize that these are gross generalizations, but I am sure you can relate to one of the stages I have described, even if you aren’t in the age range I have put on it.
No matter what age you are, from 10 to 80 (after 80, think about just taking it easy and relaxing some more!) there is no better time than now to dip your toes in the water. There will always be reasons not to do it, and there will always be reasons to wait, but you have to look past those and see the things that make you the best person for the job right now.
Go on, jump in.
Update #2: A new essay by Clay Shirky