Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The 27 Year Old Rule - Where Big Ideas Come From

There is a lot more than a grain of truth to Steve Levey’s assertion in Newsweek that the biggest ideas come from people under 27. Psychologists have long noted that most professionals and artists and not few revolutionaries develop their big ideas in their 20s (think Einstein,Marx and Picasso) or began incubating them in those days (think Freud & Darwin). On top of that many investors like Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures have mulled over it, realizing they're not that thrilled about dealing with entrepreneurs under 30.

In the past 10 years, the iBreakfast has hosted thousands of new business idea presentations and we have developed our own classification system for handicapping the investiblity of entrepreneurs by age group.

(Note that true serial entrepreneurs, especially ones that succeeded early are in a class of their own to be discussed separately.)

Moonshots: Big on concept but usually lacking in key details. Young entrepreneurs, unencumbered by mortgages and howling bambinos are free and hungry enough to go for broke. Too often though, bean counters get in their way. Their young egos are unpredictable and investors, seeking bargains, tend to offer low valuations or onerous term sheets. The young ‘uns tend to be strong-headed and yet.....they start Google, Paypal, YouTube, Federal Express, Yahoo, Virgin Records, Microsoft, Apple…..

The bubble years may have opened up the purses of many a stingy investor but that has changed and investors have largely reverted to type. That is why, in the long run, New York tends to lose the best ideas Silicon Valley because they are either more nurturing over there or because, a hot head who rejects a tough termsheet in NY turns to jelly when an even tougher one comes from an industry rock star in the Valley.

These are the most investible. Fewer home runs but a lot of triples and of course, base hits. But there is an almost mathematical certainty that an industry pro with 10 years experience in a growth industry and a plan based on an actual market need or a genuine domain innovation, a briefcase full of warm leads and a bit of skin in the game is going to get funded. These are consistently the most investible entrepreneurs in the game – entrepreneurship’s true middle to upper-middle class. If you, as an entrepreneur fit this profile…..the check’s in the mail.

These are the kinds of people who start, eBay, eTrade and other businesses with actual substance (but also Craiglist and Wikipedia, whose business models mystifies most investors). While a lot of middling, unknown companies come out of this field - your base hits that never quite progress - these people do really well when their idea coincides with a dramatic growth in their sector. They tend to know what they are doing and are less likely to drop the ball.

Like an old wine, when it comes to the geezer group, the bottle is usually in better shape than the content. The tannins may have softened but so has their oomph and they may not be ready for a 24/7 lifestyle with madcap deadlines. On the other hand, if they have had entrepreneurial experience or bring a good team with them they could do it.

They are best if they are an evolved version of the Middle Players but with more experience, a better team, more potent connections and a better understanding of the need they’re filling.

The Dubious but Always Interesting Graybeards Are:

1. The Immortality Seeker.
Like a graying Indiana Jones they are on a quest to make meaning of their careers. Usually, it’s the Temple of Doom and, like the Pharoah’s attendants who built it, you, the investor will probably get buried with him.

2. May-December Team
You tend to see these at big money events for the same reason that you see old lotharios with young babes. The old manager finds a smart kid and backs him with resources, contacts and of course, adult supervision. But generally, the geezer’s ego gets in the way. The kid bridles or just gets diaper rash and shops his even bigger idea at a business hangout on line or at the iBreakfast (sure, why not?). Unless there’s a special dynamic, like these two really worked together in a previous life or the kid married the geezer’s daughter and has 7 years to work off his debt, watch out!

3. The Geezer just has to Do it.
While this looks like a quest for immortality the main difference is the motivation is tied to a genuinely good idea, the entrepreneur is prepared to do what it takes and the business flows from his past experience. Plus he may have a really experienced team (hopefully, with just enough tannins to keep the wine flowing) and extra skin in the game. This could be a thumbs up! Just don’t expect a home run, but ya never know! Plus, you won't have worry about them being lost to nightclubbing.

If yo are lucky enough to have an idea take off while you’re still at college (think Bo Peabody of Tripod, Dean Kamen of Segway or Kevin O’Connell of DoubleClick), you truly are the landed gentry of the community. However, things can go wrong. Even Spielberg produced 1941, Edison’s talking dolls (the ones with little phonographs in their bellies) were all returned and so on. Generally though, as long as they stop reading their PR, they rule!


raybeckerman said...

Alan, with all due respect I find these generalizations abhorrent, and just plain wrong. Trying to peg creativity to chronological age is an exercise in folly. And discounting, as you do, the value of life experience in sharpening one's mind, is a gross miscalculation.

If you want to generalize, I think a better case could be made for the argument that the most creative thinking comes from people under 5 and people over 80... but even there I've seen some pretty smart folks in between those ages.

Where, how, when, and to whom, a good idea will come, is -- like true love -- one of those unpredictable things in life.

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Startupalooza said...

Ray, there is a difference between generalizations and common sense. These are real observations organized into a pattern based on reason. If that is abhorrent then you haven't been introduced the concept of rule of thumb. Anyway, if you don't think new ideas are the province of the young, then show me the original ideas coming from people over 50 that also didn't stem from their teens or twenties.