Youthful entrepreneur looking for start-up advice? Ravikant gives solid advice

File photo of co-founder and CEO of AngelList, Naval Ravikant. Photo: AFP

File photo of co-founder and CEO of AngelList, Naval Ravikant. Photo: AFP

Published Mar 19, 2024


By Andile Masuku

Naval Ravikant is an Indian-born American tech entrepreneur and investor who came to prominence as the co-founder, chairperson and former CEO of AngelList.

AngelList is a successful software platform for venture fund-raising that connects start-ups with investors. Ravikant launched it in 2010 with his partner Babak Nivi.

Ravikant is also famous for his tech investment acumen, which has seen him secure spots on the cap tables of numerous start-ups early on, including several notable ones such as Twitter (now X), Uber, and Yammer (now Microsoft Viva Engage).

Ravikant’s start-up journey started in the late 1990s, long before the “overnight success” of AngelList, which was, apparently, the seventh company he launched.

As it happens, AngelList was the only successful venture out of the numerous projects Ravikant had initiated up until that point. He revealed all this during an on-stage conversation with media maven-cum-early-stage venture capitalist (VC) Jason Calacanis at a LAUNCH Hackathon event 10 years ago, when AngelList was just three years old.

This was long before the company morphed into the Bay Area institution it is today and before Ravikant grew to be regarded by many in the world of start-ups and VC as a sensei bursting with pearls of wisdom regarding health, wealth and happiness.

In revisiting this podcast conversation, a few things stood out to me. First, Ravikant’s age at the time of the recording. He was 39 years old. Second, his comfort with the commonality of failure in entrepreneurial ventures. And third, the role that singular success can have in shaping individual career trajectories and the fate of tech companies.

40+ is the new black

Research published by the “Harvard Business Review”, evaluating confidential US Census Bureau data on the age of all business owners in America, shows that the average age of entrepreneurs is 42 and that entrepreneurial success, by even the most modest objective measures, is most likely for founders who are roughly 40 years old and older.

This research suggests that contrary to modern society’s popular sensibilities, which tend to glamorise the outlying entrepreneurial success of the youngest among us, youth is not “the elixir of successful entrepreneurship”. This is where I should probably confess that I’m 39 years old, turning 40 in June. *hides*

While I haven’t reviewed any comparable African research, my hunch is that this statistical reality holds in most markets across the continent. I welcome any data or insights you, the reader, might have to shed light on this question within an African context.

That said, shout-out to youthful outliers like Kenyan entrepreneur David Nandwa, the founder and CEO of the East African financial services aggregator Honeycoin. The venture incubator and accelerator, Antler East Africa, notably backed the fintech start-up early on. Happily, Nandwa, in his early twenties, doesn’t seem to be letting statistical odds temper his entrepreneurial ambition or shape his start-up’s trajectory.

Getting the reps in

Ravikant advocated for a mindset of continual iteration and openness, highlighting the value of maintaining focus on a particular problem area over time. He held that focus allows for continuous improvement and deep expertise development.

Moreover, he stressed the importance of learning from mistakes, noting the role of timing, the gradual accumulation of knowledge and skills, team dynamics, and the ability to execute in his progression from routine humbling caused by rookie errors to growing confidence in meeting increasingly nuanced business challenges.

These ideas seem particularly challenging to embrace for many younger people who reach out to me for start-up advice.

Recently, I had one of my nephews, a recent BCom graduate in his early twenties with very little work experience, ask me to slide a document outlining a vehicle-tracking industry venture concept he’d like to launch into the DMs of a certain chief of staff and executive associate to the CEO at Tracker, Floyd Munetsi.

Munesti is a former high school mate who will hear of this “opportunity to partner” with my nephew for the first time when he reads this column.

Don’t worry about the lad, though. I’ve assigned him some good reading, and the family’s helping him access hands-on educational work opportunities to “get some reps in” as a warm-up for the rest of his entrepreneurial career.

You only have to be right once

Luck, Ravikant suggests, also plays a role alongside perseverance and skills development in entrepreneurial success. I subscribe to the idea of co-operating with Providence and being a faithful steward of talents and gifts endowed and acquired, but I digress.

Reflecting on his own journey, Ravikant recounted 13 years of “pounding at start-ups non-stop” before striking product-market fit with AngelList. The rest is history.

All told, Ravikant’s throw-back podcast views suitably encapsulate the essence of what all entrepreneurs, 40+ or younger, would do well to acknowledge the challenge of entrepreneurship and the importance of being open to learning humbling lessons along the path to (potential) success.

Andile Masuku is the co-founder and executive producer at African Tech Roundup and head of community at Africa-focused early-stage tech investor Founders Factory Africa. Connect and engage with Andile on X and via LinkedIn.