You're Not Dead at 50: The Best Entrepreneurs are Silver

08 MAR 2010

by Doug Richard, Founder of School for Startups

While those under fifty often give starting a business serious consideration, many fifty and over think entrepreneurship just isn’t an option for them. No matter how much they may have wanted a business in their youth, somewhere around fifty they arbitrarily decide that they are far too old to have one.

  • Some think that working to get paid more in their current job must be easier than starting a new enterprise.
  • Some believe that finding a new job that pays more will be easier than starting a completely new business.
  • Some consider it wise to have a job that offers retirement benefits, even if it doesn’t pay well and the projected retirement benefits will be insufficient to pay bills in years to come.
  • Others simply have no idea how they would go about founding a new enterprise and think they are far too old to learn.

If you are over the age of fifty, and you are letting age alone stand in the way of starting your own enterprise, I suggest you reflect on the following.

  • People are living longer than ever. Someone in good health who works hard to remain healthy, may expect to be fully functional into their eighties. Changes in medical technology may extend your lifespan even further. Spending almost half your life in idle retirement is a bit insane.
  • Having a business, and the daily pressure to remain mentally acute and physically active, is good for you. Studies show that mental and physical exercise stave off most of the ill effects of old age. So allowing yourself to have a business may actually help you live longer.
  • A good business provides value to your family as well as to you. If you increase the number of years you are productive, you may build resources that benefit people after you are gone.

Starting a business isn’t rocket science, and all other things being equal it is easier for those over fifty to create a successful enterprise than it is for the younger set. Older professionals have business, financial and personal life experience to draw on. They tend to be more pragmatic and better connected than their younger brothers and sisters. They also have fewer personal distractions since they rarely have infants and small children at home.

It’s Not All Roses

Older entrepreneurs do have some important issues that should address very directly before they start new enterprises.

  • They should give the enterprises they plan to start serious thought before they invest significant time or money in them. Not all businesses are created equal. Some are just better than others. I have 20 questions I use to vet businesses I plan to start, because I know that businesses that pass my test make more money faster than those that don’t. Youngsters can work long hours at minimum wage to build an enterprise based on a bad business models. More mature business professionals should be smart enough not to.
  • They need to frankly assess their health and their requirements for exercise and reasonable levels of stress. Whereas younger workers can afford to burn the candle at both ends, adults must make sure they do everything they need to do in order to remain fit. A healthy body and mind are always a good investment, and they are the single most important asset an older professional can give to their business.
  • They need to be realistic about the financial life cycle of their business. Though I never tell people to start a business with a firm exit plan in mind, I do think older entrepreneurs need to give some thought, as they develop their enterprises, into how their businesses can run without them for periods of time and how they can monetize any equity or value they build in their firms when they decide to cash out.
  • They must renew their personal and professional relationships. The most significant advantage that most mature entrepreneurs have over newcomers is the depth and breadth of their contacts. This is particularly true when multiple over-50 entrepreneurs find a way to collaborate. This opens up access to early sales and prompt financing on a very significant level.
  • They should refrain from dumping their life savings into their business. They should avoid acquiring a great deal of debt to fund their business. Businesses are supposed to make money. If a business model is well considered, and it’s implementation strategic, it can almost always launch and become profitable with very little investment. Younger entrepreneurs can make the mistake of believing that financial success can be bought. More mature entrepreneurs must know better.

Ready to Get Started?

If you are over fifty and want to give serious consideration to starting your own business, here are some steps you can take to get started.

Start by making a list of all the assets and experience you can bring to a business. It may seem strange to start with a list of what you have rather than what you want, but creating this list throws off the tunnel vision that having a job and raising a family give most of us. By the time you are remembering what you did for a living when you were twenty, and which courses you enjoyed in school, you are also remembering who you know and what you know, and that’s an important thing for you to do. Writing this information down is also important. What we remember and ponder is ephemeral. What we write down is concrete and easy to reference.

Make a list of the things you enjoy doing. Good businesses are based on passion. Enthusiasm and expertise are your most important sales tools because most people enjoy working with folks who care, deeply, about doing something right. Don’t think about what’s possible, what’s rational, what is wise or what is practical. Think about what activities you enjoy day to day, minute to minute. Make another list of things you don’t like doing. You may hate accounting, but it’s a part of running a business. The necessary parts of a business that you don’t want to do must be undertaken by others. You have to know what they are so you can shop for help.

Start writing down business ideas. By the time you’ve completed the previous two operations, which will take days or weeks, you’ll have ideas noodling around in your head for things you might like to do that make money. You’ll have come up with ways you can be of service to others, and you’ll have some notions of people who might be willing to help you. You’ll be aware that some of your business ideas are things that won’t take much time and will make money. You’ll also have some larger ideas, requiring more of an investment and providing more of an income. By the time you’ve got twenty or thirty ideas on paper, you’ll have some you like better than others. Those are the ones you can begin to explore. Exactly what would it take to get started with those businesses? Can you find customers? Do they want what you have to sell them? I mention in passing that our School for Startup’s “Start Here!” classes are designed to help people who want to know how to vet business ideas before investing time or money into them.

The process may seem strangely loose and intuitive, given that business is always characterized as such a cut and dried thing. But the truth is that starting a business is about equally art and science. There’s no point starting a business you will loathe running. The best outcome from that kind of thing will be that you go out of business quickly so you can get on with something that you enjoy more that pays just as well or better.

As a very happy entrepreneur over fifty, I encourage my peers to join the entrepreneur revolution required to keep the UK wealthy and prosperous well into the next century. Innovation, invention, insight and good implementation can build a good business at any age.

  1. You do mention “depth and breadth of their contacts” (its a little buried towards the end). I wish I could say that I had made the jump into entrepreneurship (still stuck on intrepreneurship!), but to me the main advantage of coming at this with the experience of being “silver” is the breadth and depth of vertical and horizontal connections that most younger entrepreneurs struggle to have.

  2. Very nice article! 50 is defiantly not too old to start a business. All you need is a bright idea, a clear business plan, and motivation…hard work DOES pay off!