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Opinion: 10 tips for starting your own business when you're over 50

MarketWatch logo MarketWatch 6/26/2019 Kerry Hannon
a person preparing food in a kitchen: Launching a business at midlife is often a way to find meaning and to give back to society. © Getty Images/iStockphoto Launching a business at midlife is often a way to find meaning and to give back to society.

More older adults have become entrepreneurs in the last decade than younger people. No kidding. Counterintuitive, right? But it’s true. Entrepreneurship in the 50+ age group is on the rise.

When it comes to launching a successful business, youth is not the magic elixir.

In my new book, “Never Too Old to Get Rich: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Starting a Business Mid-Life”, I profile 20 entrepreneurs over 50, who have started businesses either from a passion or hobby, are social entrepreneurs, have launched senior-junior partnerships, or are female entrepreneurs — the fastest-growing demographic globally.

One of the best decisions I ever made was to declare my freedom from my full-time job as a columnist for a national newspaper and start my own media business. That was my personal independence day, and I’ve never looked back. Since then, I’ve also become an author of numerous books, a frequent public speaker and an expert on career transitions.

So my question, as July 4 nears: Is it time for you to declare your independence and start a business?

For many people I have met and counseled, launching a business at midlife is often an inner pursuit to find meaning and to give back to society. That’s tremendously rewarding. What’s more, becoming an entrepreneur after 50 is not as risky as you may think (or needn’t be) and the psychic and financial payoffs can be well worth it.

“Successful entrepreneurs are middle-aged, not young,” according to Age and High-Growth Entrepreneurship, a paper by Pierre Azoulay and J. Daniel Kim of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management; Benjamin Jones of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management; and Javier Miranda of the Census Bureau’s Center for Administrative Records Research. “We find that age indeed predicts success, and sharply, but in the opposite way that many observers and investors propose,” they wrote.

The provocative paper may stun some people, but not me. It confirms what I’ve found studying and interviewing midlife entrepreneurs. A few reasons an older entrepreneur may reap the benefits of startup success over a younger one: greater managing, marketing, and finance know-how, and richer, deeper industry knowledge.

a close up of Kerry Hannons face © Wiley

Those who succeed typically set a flexible time horizon for their venture. They don’t make any rash moves. If necessary, they add the vital skills and degrees before they make the leap. They often apprentice or volunteer beforehand. But at the heart of all of their efforts lies a yearning to make a difference in the world, or to pursue a dream, or hone a hobby, to live.

Here are my top 10 tips for those looking to launch their own business.

Here are my top 10 tips for those looking to launch their own business:

Take a breath. Entrepreneurship is a process. Soul-search. You will want to begin with a solid MRI of your own passion and personality, talents and inner drive to start a business. The big questions: Why start this business? Why you? And why now? Prepare to get your hands dirty to discover just what it will take to make your dream a reality. That means picking up the phone to ask for help, researching, and getting under the hood of what it will take to really do this in terms of time and money.

Read: How to find happiness when you’re afraid to retire

Downsize and plan your financial life. Debt is a dream killer. The biggest stumbling block for many midlife entrepreneurs is money. Do a budget. Where can you trim expenses? You may not be able to pay yourself initially as the business gains traction.

Become physically fit. I don’t mean running fast miles or bench-pressing, but walk a mile or two regularly, swim a few times a week perhaps. Eat nutritiously. When you’re fit, you bring positivity to your work and your life.

It gives you the stamina and energy you will need to face new challenges. You’ll be mentally sharper, feel good, and a can-do attitude emerges. People will want to be around you and work with you.

Ramp up your spiritual fitness. I don’t mean a religious practice, per se. Starting your own business is demanding. Find a place to center yourself, and de-stress. You will draw strength from having a ballast, a core of calm, as you head down this path. You might practice yoga, tai chi, or meditation, or walk your dog along quiet pathways, as I do.

Reach out to your networks of social and professional contacts. I can’t overemphasize the importance of networking to help your business get off the ground and grow. Your network, your tribe, your believers are the ones who are going to propel you forward to success. Network with people doing work in the field you are eyeing. Ask how they got there, how they do their jobs, what they love about it. People love to talk about themselves and their work.

Read: How to find happiness when you’re afraid of retirement

Tap into your alumni network. You never know who can bring you clients or help you build your business via an alumni association at your college or university, or even an alumni group at one of your former employers. Your alma mater’s career service center very well may have resources devoted to midlife entrepreneurs such as an incubator on campus, or continuing education classes geared toward career changers and entrepreneurs that are offered online, or via weekend workshops. You might even be able to make a connection to access current students who can lend a hand.

Don’t ignore the big players in the small-business help arena. Your town’s Rotary Club or chamber of commerce can be a wonderful source of mentors and advisers. Find a local chapter of SCORE, a nonprofit association devoted to teaching entrepreneurs the ins and outs of getting under way. SCORE is a resource partner with the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). SCORE mentors will advise you for free, in person or online.

If you’re in the exploring stage, you might start with a virtual mentor. One of my favorite sources is PivotPlanet, a service that connects people with expert advisers working in hundreds of professions for affordable one-on-one, one-hour videoconference, phone, or in-person sessions. Most one-hour sessions range from $40 to $125.

Read: What would your 90-year-old self tell you to change today?

Be specific about what help you need. When you do identify someone you want to reach out to, be specific about your goals for the connection. You might have a certain business task at hand, something as simple as advice on the best way to price your product or service. Or perhaps you’re looking for someone who can introduce you to some of the players in the market. Don’t rule out a mentor younger than you, who can offer more experience and direction when it comes to areas like social media where you might not feel quite as confident.

Read: Here’s a way for seniors to avoid getting ripped off

Invest in additional education and training. Add skills and certificates required for your new business. Take a class in salesmanship, or sign up for a course in public speaking at a local community college. You might even join Toastmasters to practice public speaking and improve your communication skills. The ability to sell your idea is essential.

Cruise the web for free resources. Tap into entrepreneurship resources at EIX.org. If you’re seeking an encore venture focused on social impact, visit Encore.org for resources to help you get started.

Finally, the richness you achieve from being your own boss is more than more zeros in your bank account. The key is the inner richness that comes from doing work that energizes you, with people who make your life richer and making an impact in the world in some meaningful fashion. That’s genuine wealth.

Kerry Hannon is a leading authority and strategist on career transitions, entrepreneurship, personal finance and retirement. She is a frequent TV and radio commentator and keynote speaker at conferences. Hannon is an award-winning and best-selling author of 13 books, her latest, “Never Too Old to Get Rich: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Starting a Business Mid-Life”, is published by John Wiley & Sons.

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