Here to dispel the myth that entrepreneurs are all hip young bearded things, Stefano Hatfield – editor in chief of High50.com – paints a very different and altogether more discerning picture.
The popular image of the typical start-up is rooted in Hollywood or can be seen in business press imagery: young, geeky men (it’s always men) in shaggy beards working out of their garages in San Francisco to create companies that go on to become Hewlett Packard or Apple.
It’s a myth propagated further by the relative youth of the likes of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg (20, when he co-founded the site), Microsoft’s Bill Gates (20) and Steve Jobs (21). We’re all familiar with the Summly story: schoolboy Nick d’Aloisio raising venture capital money at 15 before selling his news digest app to Yahoo! for $30m, aged 17.
It wasn’t always this way: Ray Kroc was 52 when he founded McDonald’s by persuading the McDonald brothers to franchise their drive-in burger restaurant; pharmacist John Pemberton was 55 when he reformulated his morphine alternative, Pemberton’s French Wine Coca, in response to temperance legislation by replacing the wine with sugar to create Coca-Cola. Colonel Harland Sanders was 65 when he did a deal with his first chicken restaurant (now KFC). More recently, Arianna Huffington started The Huffington Post aged 54.
Nevertheless the image persists of young coding guys in sweaty t-shirts and hipster beards being given shedloads of investor cash or even Government grants to develop their apps – if no longer in a garage, then a trendy mini-campus in California’s Silicon Valley or London’s Silicon Roundabout (near Old Street) replete with ping-pong tables and free granola bars for staff.
The reality is that on both sides of the Atlantic, an ever larger percentage of start-ups is now being launched by over-50s, for a mix of reasons, both positive and less so. Up to 1.4 million people aged 50 to 69 were made involuntarily redundant in the UK since the crash. That same age group is more likely to be long-term unemployed. We all know anecdotally, or have had personal experience of, good middle-aged employees losing their jobs simply because they were deemed expensive.
However, the ageing population throws up its own challenges. We are all going to live longer and many of us will therefore have to work longer. Most of us have woefully inadequate pension pots, partly because we underestimated how long we are going to live. UK life expectancy is currently 79 for men and 82 for women, but those of us in our 50s will already live longer than that.
The stark reality is that we will need to have accumulated around £250,000 in a pot merely to live off the equivalent of minimum wage. It is entirely unrealistic to expect people in their 50s to suddenly start saving enough before 65 or 67 – especially if interest rates remain so low. Hence, the relatively new concept of working into our 70s and even beyond.
We are also fitter and more active; not ready for the traditional pipe and slippers and moving to Hastings view of retirement. We are in fact entering the age of no retirement, or at least mixed retirement.
A study by the Kauffman Foundation in the US found that twice as many successful entrepreneurs are over 50 as under 25. In the UK, there are 4.5 million people now working for themselves and of that number around 40 per cent is over 50.
In the UK figures from the Federation of Small Businesses and PRIME, the Prince of Wales’ charity (now part of Business in the Community), reveal that more than four million people aged 50 – 64 are out of work (43 per cent of them for more than 12 months) and of those, some 400,000 a year plan to start their own businesses.
Technology has made this easier than before, but not all start-ups are tech start-ups. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that. Sometimes, experience-based knowledge, professional and personal networks, and the ability to fulfill a lifelong passion are more important than the ability to code.
Don’t just take our word for it. At High50 we created an entire channel devoted to entrepreneurs who have either started businesses in their 50s, or are still – like Johnnie Boden, Lulu Guinness and Emma Bridgewater – running their own eponymous businesses at a time when others are looking to cash in. Plus a step-by-step guide to how to do it.
More binds together entrepreneurs in ostensibly disparate businesses like publisher turned apps developer Mike Anderson, chef / restaurateur Skye Gyngell, the trendy designer florist and ex-model agent Melissa Alexander and high-end dressmaker Frances Tobin than you might think. And not least the ability to roll with the punches and learn from your mistakes. Boden once told his own board: “I don’t think middle-class women will ever get into this internet thing.”
The need for a new challenge looms high on each of their personal agendas – sometimes that’s simply out of a desire to do something new, and occasionally it’s out of necessity, because of a life change. Like so many other 50+ entrepreneurs, words like passion, purpose, confidence and honesty crop up constantly. All have the desire to make a difference, and it’s not too glib to quote Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see”.
And now, there is at least one organisation which is trying to help 50+ entrepreneurs do just that: PRIME, the Prince’s Initiative for Mature Enterprises. The FSB can also help, and there are just the beginnings of an awakening in the media too that 50+ is no longer a time for being put out to pasture. But, remember, young or old, a scary 90 per cent of start-ups fail. It will be the hardest work of your life, and even then it might not pay off financially. Despite this, many may feel they have no choice but to take the risk.
Alexander, who used to run the Take 2 model agency but is now one of London’s most in-demand florists (Chiltern Firehouse, Spring, Diesel), was just one who was undeterred. She puts it succinctly: “Do everything with integrity and never underestimate the task.”
Have you built a successful business and just so happened to be aged over 50 when you did it? Does age equal success in your experience?Let us know below
Stefano Hatfield is editor in chief at High50.com, a new lifestyle brand for ‘people loving mid-life’.