The Age Distortion Effect

Posted on November 8, 2007. Filed under: 380280 |

It seems that the press are no longer oblivious to the influx of us British entrepreneur types to Silicon Valley. Wired write about it here and Director Magazine also picks up on it as well. Discussion inevitably turns to the debate about whether you have to move to Silicon Valley in order to build a tech startup, and with the annual Silicon Valley comes to Oxfordevent taking place in the next few weeks (with myself, Kul and our friends Bob and Kirill will be speaking – all of us young guys who made the move out to SV) it’s sure to be picked up on again.

The UK we’ve come back to is very different to the one we left in January. Seedcamp is off the ground, first time entrepreneurs are raising their seed rounds in the UK and things generally seem to be far more buzzing than they were when we were building boso this time last year. Nothing shows the progress that’s been made more than the growth of Zenopy – which started out as a bunch of us working on our first startups reaching out to each other for the support we all desperately needed. The group has come a long way since then – there’s been successful exits, acquisition offers, angel rounds and VC rounds so it’s pretty clear that the trend is heading in the right direction.

Something that’s taken me by surprise though is that whenever I’m back in the UK – I always feel like working on a startup is that bit more difficult than it was in SV. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Ultimately a lot of that is personal – my family are not overly enthusiastic about what I’m doing but it’s pretty easy to escape that when you’re on the other side of the world and not so much when you’re staying at home with them again. There’s also the fact that returning to the UK also means brief separation from co-founders, which obviously adds to the mental load slightly and a general sense of feeling like you’re away from where you should be i.e. where the network you’ve built up is.

But what I’ve realised is that the bulk of it comes from an age distortion effect I feel when I’m back here. It first struck me when I read this recently, a sentence from an old PG essay:

“If you try something that blows up and leaves you broke at 26, big deal; a lot of 26 year olds are broke”.

I knew there was something that bothered me about that sentence when I first read it. When I read it again it was obvious why – because for my data set (i.e. my peer group/friends) that statement is false. As a result of attending a good university, inevitably most/all of my friends are embarking in lucrative careers whether it’s in banking/law/consultancy/tech. None of them are going to be broke by the time they’re 26 – they’ve still got 3 or 4 years to reach 26 and they’re already talking about mortgage payments and buying apartments or houses. I know that’s not representative of the general population – there are plenty of 26 year olds who are broke in the UK but ultimately we judge ourselves against our peers and not the general population.

What I mean by an age distortion effect is that whenever I come home – I suddenly feel like I aged 5 years and the amount of time I’ve got left to achieve some success is running out. I have to undergo the mental exercise of reminding myself that I’m still young – I’ve only missed out on one years worth of salary (in reality not even that as I’d have spent the past year in legal training if not for doing a startup) and in the grand scheme of things that really is not a big deal. I can afford to stay calm!

However for my peer group in SV – it’s different. Almost everyone is pretty much broke and will carry on being that way unless their startup takes off. Just look at the examples – Evan Williams didn’t start Blogger until he was 27, Paul Graham didn’t form Viaweb until after Grad School, Max Levchin had, I believe, three failed startups before he started work on Paypal. That’s why there’s less mental pressure for a young entrepreneur in SV – there’s social proof.

That social proof is taken to the extreme by Y Combinator – where you’re instantly put into a large group of people in the exact same situation as you. The cross-fertilization that goes on between YC groups that fail and the ones that stay alive only serves to strengthen that. The power of that social proof really can’t be understated – it’s why Y Combinator founders are all so close, it’s like a big fraternity because everyone relies on the support of each other so damn much.

Balancing up the scales on this one will again take time – but hey the first step was getting young people starting companies and getting them funded and that’s happening. As those entrepreneurs fail the next challenge is making sure they learn from their mistakes and stick at it and go onto their second companies. Universities have a massive role to play here – they have to fight the saturation of recruitment material on campus at the top universities (at Oxford it was difficult to walk for very long without seeing another piece of recruitment material thrust in your face) and that’s why organizations like Oxford Entrepreneurs and Imperial Entrepreneurs are so crucial to the effort.


Make a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

6 Responses to “The Age Distortion Effect”

RSS Feed for Meal Ticket Comments RSS Feed

I’m glad we are fraternity brothers Harj

Great post, cheers for the big up!

In SV going into a start-up is the cool thing to do after uni. In the UK you get the are-you-ok? look if you mention you want to work on a start-up. Perceptions need to change and as you have written, we need a social movement. In Oxford our OE community of active entrepreneurs is trying to do that job.

Just to add to your point about judging things based on our peers – I’m pretty sure PG’s idea of broke is significantly different than that of the typical broke 26 year old in the uk.

On a meta point, it seems a bit disheartening to hear how much people (perhaps unconsciously) assume there’s a direct correlation between salary and quality of life. Sure, if you’re skint then life sucks, but above a certain point of comfort the curve flattens off. On the other hand it is possible to address the quality of life value directly, if you don’t hitch your expectations to the $$$s. (Personally I found this out through laziness – by working around a lack of money I wound up in a situation where I didn’t need so much money to get by, and luckily it turns out life in rural Tuscany can be pretty sweet 🙂

Amen Harj 😉

@Danny – it’s true that ultimately quality of life doesn’t increase linearly with money.

The problem that I suspect Harj is alluding to is that amongst city grads in London the first difference between £20k and £40k is totally non-linear to the point where you can’t even always afford to spend time with your friends if you’re in the lower bracket.

Surviving amongst those peers in London is *very* different to surviving in SF and can be quite oppressive if you can’t keep up.

Great post. I’m in the UK and having visited Silicon Valley often in the late 90’s I saw the buzz there and I’m picking it up again with what I read now. Unfortunately I’m way north, so we’re not in London so we lack the support network that others have. However, surely this is where online support comes in?

I agree wholeheartedly,

Like most of your friends, most of my friends will definitely not be broke at 26, they will be mid level investment bankers pulling in 200k per annum. We inevitably judge ourselves with out peers. By doing a startup you feel like your missing out on some years, you are impatient to succeed. Success needs to be now, so you can catch up with your friends.

I guess the solution is to hang around with startup types and realise, happiness is not about money. Its about doing what you love and challenging yourself. I will finish this comment with a fav quote from Michelangelo…

“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”

Where's The Comment Form?

Liked it here?
Why not try sites on the blogroll...

%d bloggers like this: