4 Lessons for Mid-Life Entrepreneurs
I confess: I’m one of you. Like many of you, I looked around and asked myself, “What’s next?” I published books; I dabbled in consulting. A few years ago, I began to wonder how I could expand my platform.
No one is really rooting for the over-50 entrepreneur. Our role models aren’t obvious. Entrepreneurship has the reputation of being an edgy, youthful business and is often measured by the tales of Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates who dropped out of college to make their fortunes.
What about the rest of us? Not all of us dropped out of college or had a blinding insight at age 20. Entrepreneurship need not and should not belong only to the young. Indeed, the hesitations, stereotypes, and ageism that can sometimes inhibit late-career entrepreneurs can be a detriment to the economy as a whole.
There are a few practical things that baby-boomers should think about before stepping off into the unknown. Do you have the time? What about resources to carry you over the start-up period? Have you formulated a detailed business plan? The most important question: “Do you have a clear business idea?”
Assuming that you have a clear business goal and a solid plan, you will still face many challenges. And the pragmatic entrepreneur can overcome these hurdles by keeping a few points top of mind:
1. “It's never too late to be who you might have been.”
These words of wisdom are from the English novelist George Eliot. I think Colonel Sanders would have agreed. At the age of 65, Sanders’ business ventures had failed. His only assets were a $105 social security check, a Cadillac, and a recipe for fried chicken. Rather than grab the beach chair, Sanders hit the road and sold his recipe to various greasy-spoon establishments. After years of washing up in rest areas and sleeping in his car, Sanders sold his franchise for millions. The lesson is obvious: it’s never too late to start a new career.
2. Remember that you have the advantage
Older entrepreneurs often have deeper ideas based on experience and can better appreciate subtlety, nuance, and opportunity. Their ideas often emerge not necessarily from their ability to reimagine the world but from being able to see specifics. That is, older entrepreneurs can better find unfilled niches in their markets and have a better understanding of why certain processes aren’t efficient. The baby-boomer entrepreneur will often find that his or her ideas don’t emerge whole cloth, but rather are a result of incremental experiments more commonly called “experience.”
Don’t forget that in your leadership toolbox you have years of experience, strong networks, and a number of important skills. You know how to do certain tasks quicker and better than younger people.
3. Partner with young people
While baby-boomers may have good ideas with real value, they may often feel that the channels open to them to introduce, support, and disseminate their ideas are blocked. They become trapped by inertia simply because they don’t know how to get their ideas out there. They have the hard business skills, but they may not have a firm handle on emerging technologies and social media trends. Using Facebook, twitter and the like to drive your social life is one thing – using social media to drive your business is another entirely.
Baby-boomer entrepreneurs should consider partnering with younger people who are knowledgeable about online branding, writing, advertising, and design. Consider reaching out to local colleges for interns or even family members for help. While younger interns and employees can teach you technological skills, you can mentor them by sharing your experience.
4. Use the internet to test, assess, and experiment
The pragmatic baby-boomer can easily start an online business these days without too much overhead. Even if you’re selling physical products, there’s no need to start a business with an actual brick and mortar location right away. You can experiment with your products or services before you commit to a lease or to a large marketing or advertising budget.
It’s never too late to be an entrepreneur. As Colonel Sanders proved, the entrepreneurial game isn’t just for young college kids. It’s for anyone that is patient enough to withstand adversity and fight for a good idea. As Sanders said, “Work is the basis for living. I’ll never retire. A man will rust out quicker than he’ll ever wear out. And I’ll be darned if I’ll ever rust out.”
SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies
Samuel B. Bacharach is the McKelvey-Grant professor in the department of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School, and is director of Cornell's Institute for Workplace Studies in New York City. Among his books are Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. His latest volume, A Good Idea Is Not Enough: Leading for Change and Innovation, will be published this November by BLG.