When most people think of the “ideal” entrepreneur, they picture someone like Mark Zuckerberg, an individual who is young, ambitious, and nonconformist. They imagine someone who is eager to change the status quo. We tend to mythologize these young disrupters as the consummate startup founder with these common entrepreneurial traits.
However, a recent research study from Northwestern / Kellogg has revealed that’s not the case at all. The reality is that most successful entrepreneurs are actually middle-aged, have extensive experience in their industry or sector, and their serious innovation arises from the result of their deep experience.
Entrepreneurs Are Knowledgeable
“Those with industry experience are much more likely to hit a home run than those who come from outside the sector,” explained co-author Benjamin F. Jones, a Kellogg professor of strategy and entrepreneurship. He went on to say, “If you’re familiar with the ins and outs of an industry, having worked in it, and you have a strong professional network, your odds of success are greater.”
Most successful entrepreneurs have to know the products, customers, suppliers, competitors, and channels of distribution well. They have to know what works and what doesn’t.
For example, Ray Kroc gained years of experience in the restaurant industry before he experienced his breakthrough success with McDonald’s. The same goes for David Duffield, the founder of PeopleSoft. He began his career understanding the nitty and gritty details of the software industry before he made his innovative move.
“I’ve studied age and creativity for a while, and there’s a pattern of Nobel Prize winners, inventors, artists, and innovative minds making breakthroughs in their 40s,” said Jones. “I don’t think it’s an accident that we see the same pattern in business. These are people who have been around for a while and seen what works.”
Entrepreneurs Learn from Every Experience
However, it’s just working knowledge of their industry that leads to entrepreneurial success; it’s the ability to learn from every experience. Successful startup founders need a combination of education, experience, and specific market knowledge to get their innovations off the ground.
There’s also a need for entrepreneurs to have access to an extensive network so that they can learn from those around them. Most founders work within their social networks to facilitate creation and to get their ventures up and running.
Entrepreneurs Try Again and Again
Finally, there’s the law of batting averages. The more chances an experienced entrepreneur takes, the greater the odds are that one of their opportunities will be successful. Not everyone is willing to keep trying even after a list of failed ventures. For example, Ray Krock was in his fifties before McDonald’s became a success. Before that, he struggled to get any of his ideas to take off.
“It’s a matter of probabilities,” Jones explained. “Those who study their industry and pay close attention have either learned some things through trial and error themselves, or learned by watching others. Maybe failure itself is a useful instructor. Or maybe it’s just about having more swings of the bat.”