Technorati reports approximately one buptillion disputatious replies to Fred Wilson’s observations about age and tech entrepreneurship. These come in two basic forms: examples from industry (“Youth doesn’t matter because Steve Jobs is still going strong”) and examples from personal experience (“Youth doesn’t matter because my grandmother invented DoS attacks when she was 87!”)
These arguments, not to put too fine a point on it, are stupid.
Fred is not talking about intelligence or even tech chops. He is talking about a specific kind of tech entrepreneurialism: the likelihood of coming up with an idea that is so powerful it will shift the tech landscape. He is then asserting that, statistically, young people have an edge in their ability to come up with these kinds of ideas.
The first counter-argument, whose commonest explanandum is Steve Jobs current success, not only fails, it actually supports Fred’s point. Back In The Day, Jobs’ best decision was to work with Wozniak, and together they brought out usable versions of the GUI and the mouse. These changes were so radical that they didn’t catch on until they were copied in more pedestrian and backwards-compatible forms. And now? What is Apple doing with a seasoned Jobs at the helm? They are polishing the GUI to a fare-thee-well. They are making Diamond’s idea of an MP3 player work better than anyone imagined it could. They are making (brainstorm alert!) a phone! Woz was a mere tinkerer in light of such revolutionary moves, no?
As a Mac user, I love what Jobs is doing for the company, but no way am I willing to confuse the Polecat release of the current OS with what Lisa tried and the Mac achieved in the early 80s.
Then there is the personal attestation to brilliant ideas, coming from the outraged older set. I guess I should feel some sort of pride that my fellow proto-geriatrics are still in there fighting, but instead, I think they kind of prove Fred’s point by demonstrating that they’ve either forgotten how to read, or that they can’t do math so good anymore.
Fred’s basic observation is statistical: In the domain E, with the actors divided into two groups Y and O, there are more Y in E than you’d expect from a random distribution, and many more if you thought there should be an advantage to being a member of O.
This observation cannot be falsified by a single counter-example. Given that Fred’s argument is about the odds of success (he is a VC, after all), the fact that you remember the words to the Pina Colada song and you recently did something useful is meaningless. Fred’s question is about how many grizzled veterans are founding world-changing tech firms, not whether any are.
There are lots of possible counter-arguments to what Fred is saying (and I am echoing): Maybe so many young people start companies that the observation suffers from denominator bias. Or: young people raise money from VCs in disproportionate numbers because they don’t have the contacts to raise money in other ways. Or: the conservatism of the old is social, not mental, and concerns for family and quality of life turn otherwise undiminished imaginations to lower-risk goals. And so on.
It would be good if someone made those arguments — the thesis is provocative and it matters, so it should be scrutinized and, if false, destroyed. But Fred has said something important, something with both internal evidence (the list of successful recent entrepreneurs) and external existence proofs (mathematicians careers are also statistically front-weighted, so the pattern isn’t obviously absurd.) Given this, the argument cannot simply be whined away, robbing many of the current respondents of the weapon with which they are evidently most adept.