Age used to confer gravitas in business and a few grey hairs lent credibility. But the rise of the Internet has shifted the rules. The change is evident even to the naked eye. Middle-aged men in conservative suits are no longer in vogue. Now fresh-faced entrepreneurs, some barely out of kindergarten, stare out from the pages of countless business magazines.
In the UK, Benjamin Cohen dreamt up an Internet business at the age of 15, ran it from his bedroom with funds of £150, and became a dot-com millionaire at just 17. His business, JewishNet, was sold to the Totally group of companies last year, and became "http://www.TotallyJewish.com". Cohen, now 18, is set on making his next million before he reaches 20, by setting up an adult search engine.
Ashley Power is the 15-year-old founder and president of Goosehead. The high-school sophomore from California's San Fernando Valley set out to create a Web page to keep in touch with her friends and turned it into a business targeting teenagers. Too young to enroll for a college degree, she taught herself how to build web pages by reading HTML for Dummies. "http://www.Goosehead.com" produces and streams Web shows on a site aimed at teenagers who "aren't little kids". The site gets about 300,000 hits a day. Power is carving out a media empire.
Forget re-engineering and knowledge management, youth is the new business wonder drug and venture capitalists are hopelessly addicted. One US VC relates that a celebration dinner for a new company in Boston lacked fizz because the venture capitalists were the only ones at the table old enough to drink. The Internet gold rush may not be quite the stampede it was but young legs still set the pace. VCs are prepared to invest millions of dollars in an idea dreamed up by teenagers playing on a computer in a garage.
By comparison, 30-somethings like Michael Dell, founder of Dell Corporation, and Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, begin to look positively past it; Bill Gates, now in his forties, ancient. New stars are emerging. They are people like the co-founder of Netscape Marc Andreessen (just 23 when he led a team of programmers that created the Web browser Netscape Navigator), and now at the helm of a new venture called Loudcloud in Sunnyvale, California.
Elsewhere there are other signs of a youthful takeover. It is estimated that some 46% of businesses in the US are now started by people who are 35 or under. Them and us used to refer to workers and managers. Now it refers to the older generation of managers and their younger colleagues. The young have it. And the old are making desperate attempts to catch up or get up to speed with the new generation.
But despite the adulation of the young, youth is not a new phenomenon in business. Younger heads have always challenged the business orthodoxy. Recent history shows that many successful entrepreneurs started young - often while still at school.
Michael Dell, for example, embarked on his entrepreneurial career at the tender age of 16. He got a summer job selling subscriptions to the Houston Post. From the local courthouse he obtained lists of those who had applied for marriage licences. From another source he compiled a list of people who had recently applied for mortgages. He targeted the two groups with a personalised letter. Subscriptions poured in. When the school term started, an assignment from his teacher asked students to complete a tax return. Dell calculated his income at $18,000 - more than his teacher had earned.
Go back another generation and Richard Branson, too, cut his business teeth while still at school - first breeding budgerigars and then growing Christmas trees. Both endeavours failed. He dropped out of school at 16 to start a magazine called Student. It, too, failed. When Branson launched his successful record business, there was no First Tuesday, he had to pitch his idea at a bank manager. When Michael Dell started his computer business, VCs were less infatuated with youth; Dell could only raise a modest $1,000.
What has changed in recent years is not the energy that young people bring to business but the fact that they are more likely to be taken seriously. There is a perverse logic at work. VCs reason that to create the future, entrepreneurs need to be unencumbered by the past. Does this mean there is no place for experience? Not at all. Most of the business angels and VCs hoping to make a fortune by funding the new wunderkinder are seasoned professionals. Age still has its privileges.
Kim Benjamin writes for management site Ftdynamo