• Senior Entrepreneurs: Innovative, Foolhardy or Desperate?

    As more and more research details that older Americans are starting businesses at a higher-than-average rate, it’s important to study the why and how of this phenomena.

    Anita Campbell, Editor and Founder of Small Business Trends, LLC, posits the question, StartUps Are Graying, But Is It a Good Financial Move?

    Campbell writes, “The face of the typical startup entrepreneur these days is a bit wrinkly, sporting some gray hair, and having the wisdom that comes with age.”

    She refers to a Business Week article by Scott Shane where he says, “according to recent research, these days those 55 and over are more likely than young people to be starting businesses.” And Shane, in turn, cites research by Dane Stangler of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation that showed in every year from 1996 to 2007, Americans aged 55 to 64 had a higher rate of entrepreneurial activity than those aged 20 to 34.

    In the name of realistic scrutiny, I just Tweeted an Op-Ed piece in today’s New York Times, Entrepreneur or Unemployed?, by Robert B. Reich, former secretary of labor, now professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley,

    Reich captures the under-reported truth behind this entrepreneurial joy, saying, too often the catalyst for this entrepreneurial surge is, “In a word, unemployment. Booted off company payrolls, millions of Americans had no choice but to try selling themselves. Another term for ‘entrepreneur’ is ‘self-employed.'”

    Reich continues:

    “According to an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics by an outplacement firm, Challenger Gray & Christmas, the number of self-employed Americans rose to 8.9 million last December, up from 8.7 million a year earlier. Self-employment among those 55 to 64 rose to nearly two million, 5 percent higher than in 2008. Among people over 65, the ranks of the self-employed swelled 29 percent. Many older people who had expected to retire discovered their 401(k)’s had shrunk and their homes were worthless. So they became ‘entrepreneurs,’ too.

    Maybe this is a good thing. A deep recession can be the mother of invention. These Americans are now liberated from the bureaucratic straitjackets they thought they had to wear. They can now fulfill their creative dreams and find their inner entrepreneurs. All they needed was a good kick in the pants.

    But this upbeat interpretation doesn’t include lots of people who don’t particularly relish becoming their own employers, like an acquaintance whom I’ll call George. George was an associate partner at one of the world’s largest technology and consulting firms until he lost his job last year in a wave of layoffs. For months, George knocked on doors but got nowhere because of the deep recession.

    But this upbeat interpretation doesn’t include lots of people who don’t particularly relish becoming their own employers, like an acquaintance whom I’ll call George. George was an associate partner at one of the world’s largest technology and consulting firms until he lost his job last year in a wave of layoffs. For months, George knocked on doors but got nowhere because of the deep recession.

    Finally, his old firm got some new projects that required George’s skills. But it didn’t hire George back. Instead, it brought him back through a “contingent workforce company,” essentially a temp agency, that’s now contracting with George to do the work. In return, the agency is taking a chunk of George’s hourly rate.

    Technically, George is his own boss. But he’s doing exactly what he did before for less money, and he gets no benefits — no health care, no 401(k) match, no sick leave, no paid vacation. Worse still, his income and hours are unpredictable even though his monthly bills still arrive with frightening regularity.

    The nation’s official rate of unemployment does not include George, nor anyone in this new wave of involuntary entrepreneurship. Yet to think of them as the innovative owners of startup businesses misses one of the most significant changes to have occurred in the American work force in many decades.”

    In addition to more realistic depictions of this frequently “involuntary entrepreneurship,” I’d like to see more research on how seniors’ are underwriting their start-ups. Are they, for example,  throwing all their savings and what crumbs might remain in their 401-K retirement accounts into these ventures? Is this, as Anita Campbell pointed out, a wise move? Young entrepreneurs have many more years to recoup those funds should the new enterprise fail.

    In that regard, it would also be valuable to see some data on Senior “Entrepreneurs” success rates. How do Seniors compete with the more tech savvy, viral-marketing-driven young entrepreneurs? Robert Jones, asks in his SmartBrief on Entrepreneurs nugget, “Are older entrepreneurs at a competitive disadvantage in a world of social media and digital communication?”

    Jeff Wuorio, makes a start at answering some of these questions with his four tips in The Older Entrepreneur’s Guide to Success, but clearly – there are a lot more questions to be answered before we revel in the “Senior Entrepreneur” phenomena.

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