Older Entrepreneurs

Some people think business is a young man’s game. They’re wrong on two counts: women excel, and the evidence suggests that older entrepreneurs also have a greater chance of success. Mike finds out why.

A recent survey showed that businesses started by people aged over 50 had more chance of success than those started by younger entrepreneurs.

We believe strongly that entrepreneurship should be taught – as part of a more general business education – in schools. However one of the main purposes of this teaching is to sow seeds that may come to fruition many years later. The world of education lends itself to long-term thinking: a book studied at school can be revisited decades later with enormous pleasure, and with a gratitude that might not have been felt at the time. The same is true for enterprise studies: to have youngsters coming away thinking ‘one day I’ll do that…’ is a huge win. But it may not pay off for thirty years. The City won’t like that timeframe, but it’s good for UK PLC.

David Hall, author of ‘In the Company of Heroes’ (a useful and underrated book on entrepreneurship) and a successful entrepreneur himself, says that the best businesses are started by people who have ten to fifteen years’ work experience behind them. By then you really know your market, both technically and, probably more important, personally: you don’t just know who the key people are, you know them as individuals. Hopefully you are also beginning to know yourself – though we reckon starting a business is a journey of self-discovery (amongst other things) whatever age you undertake it.

Many successful entrepreneurs wait even longer than ten to fifteen years, and have a full career before embarking on the start-up. And the good news is that these late starters’ chances of success are excellent.

Why? Older entrepreneurs tend to be more realistic about what they can achieve, so are less likely to overreach themselves. Many create great lifestyle businesses – something that some writers on entrepreneurship look down on, but which we think is great. You don’t have to create an empire to be a superb entrepreneur. A small team, a happy team, happy customers – who really needs more than that?

The answer, of course, for some entrepreneurs of any age is ‘me’. Ray Kroc was fifty before he founded McDonalds. So if you want to think big, or think vast in Ray’s case, do so. But remember that you don’t have to. ‘Big is beautiful’ is a dangerous myth.

Older entrepreneurs often have better people skills. Another cliché of entrepreneurship is that you have to be pushy and ruthless. Wiser, older entrepreneurs disprove this. You have to be focused; you have to know where you are going; you have to be able to inspire that vision in others. These skills come naturally to some charismatic youngsters; the rest of us acquire them over time.

Another advantage of leaving it till late before becoming and entrepreneur is that many people will have assembled decent amounts of capital by that time. Especially anyone lucky enough to have jumped wholeheartedly onto the property ladder thirty years ago. At the same time, such people will have learnt financial prudence – essential in a start-up, and not always enjoined on entrepreneurs by providers of capital (who ought to know better).

Older potential entrepreneurs who have read The Beermat Entrepreneur may feel their skills are better used for mentoring. A mentor can add so much value by bringing to a young business the things that it by definition lacks: wisdom, connections, gravitas. But we don’t see why you can’t do both. If you really feel your planned enterprise is going to be full-time, try a spot of mentoring first. As any good teacher will tell you, teaching is the best way to learn. Having helped a few young businesses get off the ground, it will be time to do it yourself.

Our society is guilty of great ageism. Like all prejudice, it is deeply silly, but can sink into the soul and demoralize whoever is on the receiving end of it. Older readers pondering if they have what it takes to start a business should take heart. If you think you’ve got it, you probably have. The facts show that you certainly have a healthy chance of success.


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