The Next Mark Zuckerberg Is Not Who You Might Think

The Next Mark Zuckerberg Is Not Who You Might Think

Many people think they know what the founder of a tech start-up looks like: a 20-something man who spent his childhood playing on computers in his basement and who later dropped out of college to become a billionaire entrepreneur.

That describes Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. But there’s just one thing: They are anomalies.

Most tech start-up founders who have successfully raised venture capital have much less unusual résumés, according to data analysis by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business. The average founder is 38, with a master’s degree and 16 years of work experience.

Yet if someone like that came to a top venture capitalist’s office, he or she could very well be turned away. Start-up investors often accept pitches only from people they know, and rely heavily on gut feelings, intuition and what’s worked before. “I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg,” Paul Graham, co-founder of the seed investor Y Combinator, once said.

That strategy, however, means that investors are likely to be missing some good bets. As the tech industry tries to make itself more diverse, expanding the pool of people it finances could be good not just for appearances but also for business. Seed money fuels a start-up, so getting those choices right is critical.

“We have a myth in our heads of what the prototypical start-up founder is, and that myth is an early- to mid-20s white male who studied computer science at an elite school and dropped out,” admits Roy Bahat, who runs Bloomberg’s tech investment fund, Bloomberg Beta. “But a small number of data points ends up incredibly captivating our imaginations. The truth is we might just be wrong.”

Bloomberg Beta is taking a different approach. It teamed up with the Haas researchers to use the data about successful founders to try to predict who in the tech industry might someday start companies — before they had even begun the process. Then the investors contacted those people and asked to meet. (Asking whether a programmer in Silicon Valley plans to start a company is a bit like asking a waiter in Hollywood about his or her acting ambitions.)

The aim of the program, called Future Founders, was to find a broader group of people who might someday have a billion-dollar idea, since venture capital still relies heavily on referrals.

“Show me another industry where the way you find your customers is to wait for your friends to introduce them to you,” Mr. Bahat said.
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