Entrepreneurship: Americans are late bloomers

I answered the classic – if not slightly boring – conversation opener “So what is it you do?” whilst tucking into an uncharacteristically tasty plane meal on my way to Chicago a couple of weeks ago. The first thing out of the enquirer’s mouth after my response was: “But you barely look old enough to be out of school!” followed by “No offence intended. I’m just surprised, that’s all.”

My new plane buddy was a property developer in his fifties called Tim. Being American, by "school" he meant university. Either way it was still quite a statement. I don’t suppose the fact that I had chosen FHM over the FT and flip flops over brogues that morning had in anyway helped his assessment. But even so…

Tim’s reaction came as a surprise to me. No one had responded remotely like he had in several years – probably not since I was in my early twenties and a fair bit younger than a stereotypical entrepreneur. As we talked more, he explained that his surprise came from the fact a university education is expected in the US and that an individual’s prospects would be severely limited without one: Barack Obama said recently he expects most of the new jobs being created will require at least a two-year college education.

Tim and I went on to trade stories about business. He was genuinely shocked at the age people I knew had founded companies. He’d read about the Mark Zuckerbergs of this world but was fairly sure he’d not met a business owner under the age of 30. The “smart young bucks” as he called them. The same description here would probably be aimed at someone in their late teens (the so-called teenpreneurs) or young entrepreneurs in their very early twenties. Even at 28 I probably don’t fall into the young buck category anymore, especially when you consider there are people out there running business who were born after Italia 90!

In a society where you have to be 21 before you’re really treated like an adult, and get fast-tracked into corporate life the minute you graduate, is it any wonder that a lot of “young” US entrepreneurs would be classed late starters by UK standards?

Tim told me he hadn’t had the confidence to start his business until well into his 40’s. That’s when he, in his own words, “risked it all”. It made me appreciate the environment I’d been able to get started in – a country where age means nothing and persistence and the gift of the gab can get you on the first rung of the ladder without the fear of becoming a degreeless no-one if you get it wrong. There is so much less to lose when you’re young – no mortgage, no dependants, no fear. We live in a society where, unless you want to be a lawyer or a doctor or something of that ilk, you will probably be at least as desirable (if not more so) with an equivalent number of years’ experience to education.

As I got off the plane, Tim was deep in thought. Possibly pondering whether he could have done it all sooner. “Good luck with your business," he said. "I wish I’d had your balls at that age”.

“Things are different now,” I replied, offering solace. “Would you have done it differently if you were born when I was?”

He thought for a minute and summed it up with two words that said it all.

“Probably not”.

Aye, there’s the rub.

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