Over 50 isn’t over the hill for the entrepreneurial

Over 50 isn’t over the hill for the entrepreneurial Setting up a busines after the age of 50 may be daunting but you will be in good company

Charlie Taylor

Bean there, done that: successful older entrepreneur Peter Cullen founded Aran Candy in 1997 at the age of 50. The company, owner of the Jelly Bean Factory brand, was acquired for €15.5 million in cash earlier this year. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Bean there, done that: successful older entrepreneur Peter Cullen founded Aran Candy in 1997 at the age of 50. The company, owner of the Jelly Bean Factory brand, was acquired for €15.5 million in cash earlier this year. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Think it’s too late in life to start a business? Think again. Given the remarkable success of fresh-faced entrepreneurs such as Mark Zuckerberg in recent years, you could be forgiven for thinking that youth is the key to success. But a growing number of older entrepreneurs are out to prove this isn’t necessarily the case.

Younger people may have more energy and fewer responsibilities, but over-50s who are going into business for themselves can usually count on years of experience, a vast network of contacts and more financial resources to help them get going.

With many older people now taking early retirement, finding their pensions are worth less than they envisaged or finding themselves at a crossroads after losing their jobs in the recession, more are forgoing the chance to take it easy and setting up their own companies instead.

These so-called “olderpreneurs” are giving youngsters a run for their money, even in industries usually associated with younger generations, such as IT.

“The figures show that those aged 50 plus who become redundant find it more difficult to secure other employment and those who have taken early retirement often find that they have to top up their pension. For others, it is an active choice as they opt to explore entrepreneurship now that they have the freedom to do so,” said Paula Fitzsimons, national director at Going for Growth, an initiative to support female entrepreneurs.

According to the latest Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM), which was published in July, entrepreneurial activity among the over-50s in the UK has risen by more than 50 per cent since 2008.

The Irish edition of the study, released a month earlier, indicates that 4.6 per cent of the population aged 55-64 are early stage entrepreneurs, up from 3.5 per cent in 2008. This rate is below that of the US (7.7 per cent), but above the EU average of 3.6 per cent.

Fitzsimons, who recently served as coordinator for Senior Enterprise, an EU-supported programme designed to encourage a greater involvement with enterprise by those aged over 50, isn’t surprised that many of us think of young people when we think of entrepreneurs.

“Many of the high-profile entrepreneurs who founded the companies that experienced exponential growth, such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Apple, were young. This has led to a stereotypical view that entrepreneurs are young.

“This may be simplistic however, as the entrepreneurs behind these companies in their early start-up stages had enablers, for example co-founders, investors, advisers and a supporting ecosystem that was not necessarily populated by young people,” she said.

“Those under 25 are less entrepreneurial as a cohort than those in the 25-34 and 34-44 age groups. In Ireland, the average age of an early-stage entrepreneur for both men and women is 38.”

Free bus pass Moreover, many of the biggest companies in the world were started by people who were no longer in their first flush of youth, while some of the best-known are still run by those old enough to have a free bus pass. Salesman Ray Kroc was in his fifties when he persuaded Maurice and Richard McDonald, owners of a small drive-in restaurant, to allow him to franchise the business as McDonalds.

John Pemberton was 55 when he invented Coca-Cola, while Colonel Harland David Sanders was a sprightly 65 years of age when he began to franchise his business into what became Kentucky Fried Chicken. Older entrepreneurs still successfully leading companies meanwhile include Rupert Murdoch (83) and Warren Buffett (84). In Ireland, successful older entrepreneurs have included Peter Cullen, who along with his son Richard, founded Dublin-based Aran Candy in 1997 at the age of 50 after an earlier entrepreneurial venture failed. Scandinavian confectionery firm Cloetta acquired the company, owner of the well-known Jelly Bean Factory brand, for €15.5 million in cash earlier this year.

Fergal Keogh, chief executive and founder of the flight simulator company Simtech Aviation, says there are a number of reasons why older people are establishing their own start-ups.

“People are living longer and are far healthier than they once were and so 60 or 65 is quite a young age to retire nowadays. The knowledge that you’ve built up in your working career stands to you if you’re thinking of going into business, because you’ve built up a good awareness and knowledge, and are considerably more streetwise,” he said.

Keogh, who was in his fifties when he set up Simtech, also believes there are considerable advantages to going out alone when you’re more mature.

“As you get older, you’ve made some mistakes along the way from which you learn and you’re also more aware of the financial aspects of business and how to negotiate contracts, deal with bankers and so on. It’s likely that you’ll also have a decent track record as well, which carries you a long way when it comes to seeking finance,” he added.

John Brophy, founder of Carrig Solutions, a Co Wicklow-based IT services company that has achieved revenues of about €1 million for each of the past four years, says he wouldn’t have achieved the same success if he’d established his business earlier in his career.

“Despite the obsession with social media, much business-to-business selling still takes place on the basis of a personal network. I doubt I’d have had either the network or the experience to successfully set up a services business earlier in life,” said Brophy, who founded the company in 2009, shortly before his 50th birthday.

“If someone is thinking of setting up a business, then in my opinion, age should be no barrier. What matters is being willing to work hard, to put in the hours, to be willing to learn, and to understand that this is nothing like your old job or career.

“Get a good mentor, avail of services from organisations like the LEOs [local enterprise offices], look for help, but don’t expect something for nothing. The good news is that people will generally be supportive and are happy to advise a new business owner. The bad news is that you will be the one who has to put it all into practice,” he added.

Such is the rise of older entrepreneurs that many have taken to referring to starting up a new business as the new retirement. Áine Cuddihy, who set up the Minicake Company in Co Limerick in 2001 after retiring as a primary school teacher, is wary of the impression this gives.

“This is often interpreted as though retired people have nothing else to do but play with a business as a means of entertainment and a way of spending their vast fortunes. The opposite is actually true.

No choice “Many older people are forced in to having to earn money due to a lack of funds. They are too young to be on a pension and too old to be employed so have no choice but to try to make it on their own. “I do believe there is a change coming from within the Government, however, and am hopeful that the ‘senior entrepreneur ‘ will soon be seen as a valuable asset to the economy,” she said.

Keogh also hopes the benefits of having more older entrepreneurs will be more widely recognised. “It’s a shame to see so many people retiring early because when this happens a lot of expertise is lost. I believe more should be done to encourage older people to keep working to ensure that this expertise helps to drive innovation,” he said.

Previously published in The Irish Times.

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