The youthful, vibrant faces of Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are representative of widely known entrepreneurial icons. But few people would conjure the more etched faces of Sam Walton (who founded Walmart at age 44) or Charles Flint (who founded IBM at 61) when asked to name a successful entrepreneur. Why entrepreneurship is so often correlated with youth rather than corporate experience isn’t clear, particularly considering that age is becoming a huge contributing factor to entrepreneurial success.
In 1997, those between ages 55 and 64 constituted only 15 percent of burgeoning entrepreneurs. By 2016, that number reached 24 percent, according to the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurship. Moreover, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that those 65 and over are the most likely in America to be self-employed, with nearly 16 percent fitting that description.
As new technologies make many traditional functions obsolete, those of older generations find themselves shut out of jobs simply because businesses can hire and train younger, less experienced people for less money. But there are other incentives for older professionals to launch new businesses or become independent contractors in their fields of expertise. By embracing entrepreneurship in the “retirement” years, they can offer a wealth of support for those who might follow in their footsteps.
Older professionals with long, successful careers under their belts are leveraging their experience and talent. In a rapidly changing technology-obsessed world, what better retirement investment could there be? The middle-aged entrepreneur has a formidable range of weaponry to use against his young competitors, including depth of experience, wisdom, accumulated wealth and confidence. So how can middle-aged entrepreneurs leverage these advantages and establish their entrepreneurial prowess?
1. Cultivate a vast network.
According to psychologist Adam Grant, research proves that success doesn’t come just from hard work and talent -- it’s also contingent upon whom you know. Thus, business leaders should continually explore contacts in their field and keep potential investors or business partners apprised of progress. That way, they can multiply efforts to obtain capital and conduits for new business. If others know about a new business venture, they will be likelier to refer other potential sources of expertise or capital.
Luckily for older generations, who aren’t typically known for being online networking wizards, networking is actually better conducted in person. According to The Wall Street Journal, a survey found that 82 percent of respondents feel in-person meetings elicit positive responses; 85 percent feel they lead to breakthrough thinking. “You can’t beat face-to-face meetings for opening the relationship or closing the decision,” added Tom Shaughnessy, who runs Sprint’s small business segment.
remember: The longer a professional is active in his industry, the more contacts he develops. However, as older professionals look to expand their networks, consider recruiting a mentor -- no, not a “seasoned” one like you’re probably thinking, but a young one who could balance your efforts and show you the new ways of this ever-evolving, digitalized and fast-paced new world. This young mentor can open doors you didn’t know existed, ultimately expanding your network.
2. Leverage your accrued business experience.
It’s undeniable: Starting a business venture later in life means you now have decades of life experience to reference and use. You’re seasoned, and your business acumen is more honed than it ever was in your 20s.
Know-how is invaluable. A stint in the trenches comes with a true education of the dangers that lurk and the mistakes to avoid -- something the younger entrepreneur cannot draw upon. The evidence of this is that typical American entrepreneurs are empty-nester parents aged between 55 and 65, not their Silicon Valley-educated children who spend hours coding in their bedrooms and listening to Daft Punk.
While you may be eager, you’re still patient -- you’re willing to take steps slowly (even those you’d rather get over with) to give your business its best chances of success.
The good news of being a more seasoned businessperson doesn’t end there: Turns out, investors would much prefer to nurture those who have “been there, done that.” Investors are far likelier to part with their funds for those who “put their money where their mouth is” and demonstrate successful track records. By the time professionals have reached middle age, they’ve likely accumulated some wealth -- a great asset when forming a new company and attracting investors.
Another great asset -- one that can’t be stressed enough -- is being able to prove your know-how and worth to potential investors. Draw on your accumulated expertise to showcase your industry experience, financial stability, business model effectiveness and overall competency to investors.
Related: 12 Benefits of Hiring Older Workers
3. Own your age.
According to a 2014 report by Stanford Center on Longevity, older employees are considered pillars at their companies: They’re better collaborators, and they’re more loyal. They also make excellent mentors.
Another report by Global Entrepreneurship Monitor highlights this further: “The world is beginning to understand how senior entrepreneurs with their wealth of work and life experience, deep networks, and eagerness to remain productive are a huge untapped resource,” said lead author of the report, Thomas Schøtt. “It is time that we stop thinking about this demographic as a liability and instead recognize them as assets, and work across sectors to help break down barriers to unleash their potential.”
Pioneers really do get better with age. A Founder Institute study shows that a 55-year-old and a 65-year-old have more innovation potential than a 25-year-old. Harvard Business Review says experienced workers provide emotional and intellectual stability in the workplace, and both are essential to innovation success: “Think about it -- disruptive innovation is about playing where no one wants to play (low-end), or has thought of playing (new market).”
According to the National Academies Press, studies have shown that older workers have advantages over their younger peers. In fact, age is believed to potentially enhance performance at work: “For example, crystallized knowledge (that which has accumulated and is stored, often contrasted with fluid knowledge, which refers to the flexible solution of novel problems) and its positive impact on work is likely to be greater in 50-year-old than 20-year-old workers.”
So there you have it -- harness and embrace your age; use it to set an example for your younger cohorts, and remember that age is just a number. Experience is invaluable.
Related: Hiring Your Mom or Dad
Inspiration can be found in many famous success stories. The founder of McDonald’s, Ray Kroc, sold milkshake mixers until age 52, while Mary Kay Ash, monarch of the cosmetics industry, sold home décor items until she was 45.
So often, older pioneers emulate a good Bordeaux in contrast to the age-averse Beaujolais Nouveau. The mature entrepreneur exudes depth of knowledge, rich expertise and wealth, making him a highly valuable commodity in the eyes of the investor and society.