Youthful Discretion - Why Youth Is A Stunning Entrepreneurial Advantage

Einstein might have been smart, but he was clearly not a fashion genius. The stylish “slippers” he is wearing in the photo are real, not a product of PhotoShop.

In 1905, at the age of 27, he published four groundbreaking works, collectively known as the Annus Mirabilis Papers. Over the next seven years, he drafted several additional papers of significance, culminating with his general theory of relativity, which was published when he was 34. Although he went on to author 290 additional scientific papers, none of them were as renowned or as impactful as those he devised during his youth. 

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Notable exceptions aside, the great majority of large, hyper-growth startups are typically founded by individuals in their twenties. There are a number of advantages these youthful entrepreneurs have over their more aged brethren, including:

  • Stamina
  • Focus
  • Passion
  • Hunger
  • Risk Profile
  • Naivety
  • Brainpower
  • Premature Aging


“How you start is important, but it is how you finish that counts. In the race for success, speed is less important than stamina. The sticker outlasts the sprinter.”
B. C. Forbes, Founder of Forbes magazine

Startups require a tremendous amount of sustained physical, emotional and mental energy. As anyone over the age of forty can attest, each passing year makes it more difficult to consistently and productively work long hours. However, even though young entrepreneurs can consistently remain productive despite a rigorous work regime, they should not do so to the point of sleep deprivation or they will lose their edge.

A 2004 study by Dr. Pierre Phillip demonstrated a surprising effect on young adults deprived of sleep. After an entirely sleepless night, the reaction times of men with a mean age of 22 were compared to men with a mean age of 58. The younger group’s reaction times were significantly slower than those of the older group, indicating that sleep-deprived younger men were more impaired by their fatigued state than the older men were by their age. Thus, young entrepreneurs should work long hours, but should be sure to set aside enough time to get adequate sleep. Such a work- and sleep-centric schedule is easier for youthful entrepreneurs to sustain, due to the singular focus they can apply to their adVenture.


“Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life – think of it, dream of it, live one idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success.”
Swami Vivekananda, Father of modern Hinduism

Young entrepreneurs often have few competing demands on their time and attention, such as children and spouses. This focus allows youthful entrepreneurs to sustain an unbalanced life without suffering detrimental side effects such as divorce or absentee parenthood. When young entrepreneurs are not working, they can more often totally relax, rather than having to attend to the needs of their spouses, children, household chores, etc. This allows them to fully recharge and approach their adVentures with renewed vigor, day after day.


“Nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion.”
Christian Friedrich Hebbel, German poet and dramatist

Without passion, an entrepreneur has nothing. A fantastic idea, launched in an ideal market at the optimum time and with the perfect team, stands little chance of success in the absence of passion. Young people have the propensity to develop and maintain a heightened level of passion that is often difficult for more jaded, older entrepreneurs to replicate.


“Hunger is the handmaid of genius.”
Mark Twain, American author and humorist

As noted in Pressure, the desire to succeed is another vital ingredient to any successful adVenture. Passion is immensely important, but an adVenture with passion and without hunger is a hobby, not a commercial enterprise. Hunger motivates entrepreneurs to run through the inevitable walls of fire which arise during their startup’s journey. A satiated individual will usually reject a difficult path, even when they know their choice is potentially detrimental to their adVenture’s ultimate success.

Risk Profile

“If you're not a risk-taker, you should get the hell out of business.”
Ray Kroc – Founder, McDonald’s Corporation

Most young people simply have less to lose than older entrepreneurs. Most have minimal assets and fewer family obligations and a lifestyle which requires relatively small recurring cash inflows. Michael Klein, Founder of Transoft (sold to Hewlett-Packard for $100M) and CEO of eGroups (sold to Yahoo for $432M), once spoke in my New Venture Creation class regarding his risk profile as a young entrepreneur.

Before beginning his high-tech entrepreneurial career, Michael appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, touted as “The Teenage Millionaire” due to the small real estate empire he had amassed by age 19. However, he was bankrupt by age 21. He told my students that bankruptcy was, “the best thing that ever could have happened to me.” Like most entrepreneurs, he had feared bankruptcy. However, once he went thorough the process, he came out the other side saying, “That’s it? That is the worst thing that can happen to me? That was nothing.”

Michael was cavalier about his bankruptcy because it occurred when he was young and beholden only to himself. His financial downfall would have been far more traumatic if it had occurred a few years later, when he had a household and family dependent on him for their livelihood.


“Every true genius is bound to be naïve.”
Friedrich Schiller, German poet and philosopher

As noted in Are You An Entrepreneur?, a healthy dose of naïvety is crucial to tolerating the challenges inherent in a pursuing an entrepreneurial career. Naïvety balanced by an experienced advisor’s cynicism can be a healthy combination.


“Knowing a great deal is not the same as being smart; intelligence is not information alone but also judgment, the manner in which information is collected and used.”
Dr. Carl Sagan, American author

Although cross-generational studies of mental capacity are complicated by the Flynn Effect, most physiologists agree that raw brain power, as defined as the ability to absorb, evaluate and act upon information, peaks for most people during their 20s.

One of the keys to successful entrepreneurship is the ability to constantly monitor and assess vast amounts of data, while rapidly and accurately applying it in a Gestalt fashion to an ever-changing reality. This activity requires high-level brain functioning. It also necessitates guidance to ensure that the youthful brainpower is focused on solving the “right” issues. Such guidance can often be provided by an addVisor.

Premature Aging

Youth is easily deceived, because it is quick to hope.
Aristotle, Greek philosopher

The lack of experience and impetuous nature of youth can be readily modulated by including a few seasoned advisors on your adVenture’s team. As noted in Old Gray Advice, such addVisors can help young entrepreneurs avoid common pitfalls and appropriately bridle their bias toward action. An addVisor’s experience and judicious thought can be especially powerful when combined with youthful passion, hunger and energy.

As I make clear in Why Most Business Books Suck, I am not a fan of business books which expose feel-good platitudes. For instance, nearly everyone would agree that entrepreneurs should focus on things which are “important” rather than those which are simply “urgent.” In addition, few would argue against working on tasks that are “effective” rather than “efficient.” Read in isolation, Stephen Covey’s acclaimed book The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People might be entertaining, but without the proper context of relevant experiences, many of Covey’s prescribed habits are difficult to put into practice.

Unfortunately, such advice can prove especially difficult for young entrepreneurs to implement, as they often struggle to delineate what is “important” and whether or not they are working “effectively.” However, an addVisor can help a youthful entrepreneur put into practice many of Covey’s effective habits. A number of such cross-generational partnerships have resulted in successful startups, including Marc Andreessen and Jim Clark, the Co-Founders of Netscape, and Steve Jobs and John Scully during Apple’s early days.

Fashion Alert

Prove Aristotle wrong. Confidently maintain your naïvety, passion, hunger, focus and high-risk profile and avoid being deceived by partnering with a suitably cynical, dispassionate, satiated, unfocused, risk-averse addVisor. Who knows? If you can balance your youthful exuberance with an addVisor’s sage guidance, the world may someday refer to you as a “business genius.” However, until such time as your success elevates you from “kooky” to “eccentric”, avoid taking fashion cues from dear, old Albert.


Copyright © 2007-9 by J. Meredith Publishing.
All rights reserved.

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John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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