Entrepreneurship isn’t just for the young. Older adults are finding that starting a business can be the perfect way to turn a lifetime of experience into something meaningful, take control of their time, counter workplace ageism, and in some cases, make a lot more money.
“In the U.S., the U.K., Ireland, and Australia, 50+-year-olds are launching more start-ups than any other cohort,” shares Kerry Hannon, the author of Never Too Old to Get Rich: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Starting a Business Mid-Life. Hannon has been researching and interviewing older entrepreneurs for over a decade and is an enthusiastic cheerleader for those who want to strike out on their own. She’s also realistic about the challenges of building a business at any age. I’ve made a few pivots after the age of 40. Having more experience in different industries certainly helps to round out some areas of prior inexperience.
Starting a business at an older age isn’t just about money, she emphasizes, though it can be a powerful motivator. “Getting rich can, and should, be also about the inner richness that comes from creating a new product or service that changes lives and our world and gives back,” Hannon writes. “It’s the richness of doing work we love, alongside people we respect.”
Here, six entrepreneurs share the key advantages they discovered in starting a business in their 50s and 60s.
Kathy Kristof started her website SideHusl.com—an independent review site of online platforms that allow consumers to make money in the gig economy—at age 58 in part because she knew it was a perfect fit for her many years of experience as a journalist. In the course of researching opportunities in the “gig economy,” she couldn’t find any sites that offered independent and comprehensive reviews.
“When I started digging in to learn more about individual opportunities, I ran across a host of truly abusive sites that hid their exploitative terms,” she shares. “I hated the idea that my kids and their friends could get conned into working for rotten platforms.”
To launch her website, Kristof used her business experience to her advantage. “Thanks to years of reporting about businesses, I knew how to put together a business plan. And, because I spent decades taking my own personal finance advice, I was in a position to help fund the startup,” she says.
When Brian Weisfeld’s daughter was 8, he observed her frustration as she tried to sell Girl Scout cookies and run a charity bake sale. Wanting to help his daughter and other girls develop an entrepreneurial mindset, he decided to create a brand that would empower girls. Five years later, Macmillan Publishers published The Startup Squad, the first book in a series, which he coauthored with Nicole C. Kear.
Book publishing can be a brutal business, and Weisfeld, 51, says his network of contacts have been an enormous help. “The largest advantage for me was the network of contacts that I built up over my career which allowed me to reach people I didn’t have access to when I was younger,” he observes.
Hannon writes: “I can’t overemphasize the importance of networking to help your business get off the ground and grow. As I like to say, networking is one letter away from not working. Your network, your tribe, your believers are the ones who are going to propel you forward to success.”
For 40 years, Richard Woods and his wife Judith owned Albany Woodworks, a reclaimed flooring business. It bothered Woods that he couldn’t find a good use for his sawdust waste. After several years of research, he created a green energy business called Waste to Energy Systems (WES) which uses gasification to turn sawmill, agricultural, manufacturing, and other types of waste into heat and energy.
Woods says that common sense, including financial sense, has played a vital role in his success. “One main concept that has helped is my understanding of how important it is to use your budget wisely,” he says. “While other companies were dumping tons of funds into research, we were spending our investment where it mattered most.”
Woods also feels being 62 years old when he launched his new business gave him an advantage. He explains, “As a younger person, I might have been swept up in the idealism of being a green energy company and may not have had a practical approach like I do now. However, my experience in the business world and dealings with my other company means I know that no matter how good a concept is, it had to make people money.”
If you want a business and not a hobby, you need to make money. “Dig into the numbers,” Hannon advises. “Do you think you could monetize (your business)? What do your potential competitors charge for their goods and services?”
Kerry Mellin, 61, and her sisters Merrily, 67, and Wendy, 65, launched their business four years ago because of the physical demands of their former careers as a motion picture costumer, director of early education, and a culinary chef. They had been mulling over ideas for a business they could start together, when Kerry, who suffers from osteoarthritis, fashioned a duct-tape cuff to hold her broom because her thumb hurt too much to hold it herself.
Decades before, Kerry had volunteered in the occupational therapy ward of a hospital and had seen first-hand how patients struggled to hold utensils and other items. After the broom incident she did some research and discovered nothing on the market that addressed this problem. Together, the sisters designed a prototype for a silicone cuff and then tested it at a swap meet, and later with nurses and therapists. The response was positive and immediate. Their company, EazyHold.com, now has clients all over the world for their silicone gripping aids for medical rehabilitation, the disabled, the elderly, and the special needs community.
According to data from Experian, older Americans generally have higher credit scores. “I’m much more financially stable, with a longer credit history that enables me to secure business loans and financing,” Kerry explains. “Our long credit histories allowed us to get a considerably large line of credit to use as needed for our business expenses and product manufacturing costs. Subsequently, our on-time payment history to our manufacturer allowed us to place larger orders upfront, but pay later as we sold product, which reduces costs for us. In essence, it’s an interest-free business loan, saving us some serious money.”
If you’ve established good credit, you can use it to your advantage by leveraging financing from your bank or suppliers and reducing the amount of cash you have to put into your business. “For those seeking bank financing, a solid business plan and a clean credit record are preconditions,” writes Hannon.
Think about what you’ve always wanted to do. Pursue a passion. You are much more likely to stick with something you love to do. “Write down in your journal what kinds of activities you loved as a child,” encourages Hannon. “Is there a business concept hidden there or a path for self-employment?”
Annie Cox was 53 and looking for a living-apart-together (LAT) relationship, which she describes as “a committed, monogamous relationship that is less than full-time in terms of time spent together, where there is no expectation of living together or sharing the same residence.” She couldn’t find a dating website that offered what she needed, so she created ApartnerDating.com.
Running a business may have its challenges, but Cox says perspective is her secret weapon. “My years have taught me to not get too worked up about all of the things that go wrong when starting and operating a business. When I face challenges with the business, I tell myself, ‘There’s too much to worry about to worry about too much.’”
In addition, if an older entrepreneur has managed their money well over the years, the lessons learned can help better manage the finances in their business. Cox adds, “I also think when a person is older, he/she likely does have the clear perspective that, given that he/she is older, there are not as many years left to rebuild a nest egg, so spend money wisely.”
Hannon urges would-be entrepreneurs to look closely at their finances before starting a business. Consider paying off debt, or downsizing to a less expensive home, for example, to provide more financial flexibility. “Many first-time entrepreneurs overvalue their initial income and undervalue their startup costs,” she warns in her book. And don’t give up too quickly.
Denise “Deni” Supplee, 58, has owned and managed businesses since she was 22. Over the years, she has managed large apartment complexes, and owned a bagel shop and a tavern, while also raising five children. Today she is the co-founder of SparkRental.com, a real estate management and investor educator firm. Her children are now grown, and she appreciates the flexibility running a business at an older age offers her.
“When my kids were young, I was driving an hour and a half a day total to work and back home,” she explains. “Then usually at least eight hours of work. Picking up the kids from daycare, cooking, trying to spend some time with them. It was rough!”
But now Supplee makes her own schedule. “Don’t get me wrong, I have some long days and long stretches with little downtime, but now I decide when there will be downtime,” she says. “I am getting better about detaching. I make time to spend with family. I have big family dinners every Sunday. They are important to me because, it keeps us together.”
While older entrepreneurs realize that time is not limitless, they can also take time to start a business on their terms. “Those who succeed typically set a flexible time horizon for their venture,” Hannon observes in her book. “They don’t make any rash moves.”
Would you like to hear more on the topic? Listen to episode 25 of the Podcast: 4 Benefits of Starting a Business Later in Life
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