From the October 2003 issue of Startups

You've let entrepreneurship remain in your dreams all these years. But maybe now that the kids are grown and you've spent 20 years or more as someone else's employee, your dreams are roaring to the surface. You're in your 40s, 50s or 60s, and you're feeling the undeniable pull of the entrepreneurial life. "Since 9/11, people in general are not waiting to realize certain dreams," says Kris Zeile, business coach and president and founder of The Coaching Consortium in Barrington, Illinois. "People in their 40s and 50s are motivated to try something new because they realize they don't have unlimited time."

Many entrepreneurs over 40 have already embraced the "no time like the present" mentality. To hear these entrepreneurs tell it, starting a business later in life was the best thing that ever happened to them. It was a blessing in disguise to Ron Meritt, founder of Meritt Electronics, when he was laid off from his corporate job at the age of 44. In his former career, he saw a pattern forming. Meritt would get hired by companies to set up service and management processes. Once he'd get the processes up and running--which generally took about three and a half to five years--he'd get laid off. "I worked myself out of a job," says Meritt, now 49. After cycling through the hire/work hard/layoff process this last time, Meritt had an epiphany. He didn't want to find himself in his mid-50s and laid off again. "I thought, 'I'd better take that leap of faith now.'"

The benefits of starting a business at middle age or older are numerous, says Mel Chasen, author of Entrepreneurship Made E-Z. "After having done so many things, you're able to use everything you've learned," he says. All your life experiences, both good and bad, can be harnessed into starting your business. You've amassed experience, contacts and perhaps even a good savings account.

It was certainly perfect timing for Meritt when he started his San Luis Obispo, California, business in 1998. He carried with him the knowledge of the mistakes and triumphs of his former bosses and colleagues in the corporate world. "Most of the bosses I saw who failed did so because they became more obsessed with company politics," he recalls.

Freeing himself from the worry of that kind of politicking, Meritt focused on his passion: designing and manufacturing portable video and DVD units for automobiles. He got the idea while traveling with his children--he envisioned a simple, all-in-one unit that could be plugged into the car AV outlet. Meritt bankrolled the $100,000 start-up costs himself and has built the company to over $40 million in projected 2003 sales.

While he confesses to having had some serious anxiety about starting out on his own, Meritt notes that not trying to do everything himself helped allay his fears during the start-up phase. "Align yourself with other people and do your homework," he says. "Get coaching from other people--including your attorney--to cover your bases."

Network News

Networking is key to starting a business later in life, says Zeile. "Who you know is incredibly important. If you're shifting industries or product lines or going for a complete change--say, you're an attorney who's opening a restaurant--not only will you need to build up your network, you've got to find a new network." Experts suggest taking classes to bone up on your new industry as well as joining industry associations and hitting the trade show circuit to meet new business contacts.

Though your peer group is likely to change, you can still build your network using contacts from your former business life. Donna Herrle, 51, started her Pittsburgh graphic design business, Drawing Conclusions, with a keen attention to setting up her network. She invited her friends, family and former business colleagues to a wine and cheese party to announce the fact that she was no longer working in corporate America as a sales manager of design and print services and had set out on her own. Being a graphic designer, Herrle created the invitation to be a playful celebration of her new life. She included photos of herself in her corporate garb with the adage "change is good" over the picture of her in her home office, wearing pajamas and slippers. "The response to that invitation was overwhelming," she says.

Out of the 80 invitations she sent out, 74 people responded. One contact was so impressed by the invitation, he brought a project to the reception itself. Herrle received five more projects in the 10 days following the event.

The event wasn't only meant to drum up business, though. It was also to silence Herrle's fear of starting out on her own. Laid off from her corporate job in 2002, she recalls, "I wondered what I was going to do."

Though she had a passion for graphic design, losing the security of a regular paycheck was scary. "I talked to as many people as I could find who were in the same situation," she says. "[They said], 'You'll be surprised--work will come if you do your planning properly.'" Work soon followed, and Herrle has built her client list to more than 50 since her October 2002 debut. In her first full year in business, she expects Drawing Conclusions to gross sales in the six figures.

Being passionate about your business is the key to starting when you're over 40, says Zeile. "[Some people] may start a business because a market looks good or a product looks good, but they personally are not really enthusiastic about the business," she notes.

Because you'll be eating, sleeping and breathing your business, it's vital that it be something that lights you up inside. "You can't get caught up in the myth that you'll be working less for more money," she says. "You're probably going to be working harder, but it won't feel like work if it's something you want to do."


Resources

The Plan and the Payoff

The idea of starting Hi-Tex Inc. in 1993 lit Craig and Randy Rubin's passion for business. Randy, a former PR consultant, and Craig, an executive in the textile industry, wanted to branch out on their own. They had the idea for their staple product, Crypton, a fabric that would not only resist stains, but would also be soft and comfortable. So Craig, 59, learned everything he could about the chemistry of creating such a product, while Randy, 56, focused on marketing it. "The key to our success is that we're never scared on the same day," says Randy.

Like most entrepreneurs, Randy notes their biggest fear was financial. The pair started out of their basement in West Bloomfield, Michigan, with a $100,000 bank loan. "You're laying all your money on the line," she says. "If you start a business at [age] 20 and it fails, you have a lot of years to recoup [that cost]."

While planning is essential in any business, it's especially crucial for those starting later in life, when losses can significantly affect retirement assets. "If you take a business idea and have poor execution, the idea isn't worth anything," says expert Chasen. "If you go into this business, what can you afford to lose? How will you handle it if you do lose?"

Because they had so much on the line, the "we can't fail" mentality actually pushed Craig and Randy Rubin to succeed. "That adrenalin helps you," says Randy. Today, the Rubins have grown Hi-Tex Inc. to more than $15 million in annual sales. "I've had enough experiences to really appreciate my life," says Randy. "I love what I'm doing. Craig and I are like two kids in a candy store. He loves inventing, and we know we're in a situation where we can call our own shots."

Though there's nothing easy about making the leap to becoming an entrepreneur in the later years of life, it can still be one of the most rewarding and, if done correctly, profitable decisions of your life. But don't take our word for it. Listen to entrepreneur Randy Rubin: "Being 50 is not so bad--there are things you know to do and things you know not to do. You might have gotten burned earlier, but now you're smart enough to keep those experiences as part of your encyclopedia," she says. "You're never going to have this day back, and if you don't ever take a chance, you'll never have the possibility of making it happen."


Dos and Don'ts
DON'T be afraid to go back to school to learn the new things you need to know about your industry or business.

DO find a network of people who've had similar experiences--either with starting a business later in life or starting a business in your industry.

DON'T go into it blindly. Spend a lot of time planning your strategy beforehand, looking at specifics like costs, market, projected sales and how much money you're willing to risk.

DO tell everyone you know, from cousins to former colleagues, that you're starting out on your own.

DON'T let fear get in your way. Planning, networking and passion for your venture can all help alleviate your fears.

DO count any experience in the business world as an asset and find ways to use all the things you learned from previous employment (even if it's what not to do).

DON'T think this will be an easy, breezy retirement-style gig. You'll likely work harder and longer than you ever have before. But doing it all for yourself is the reward.