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My dentist, the entrepreneur

Last week my wife and I were at a gala where everyone I met claimed to be an entrepreneur. Dentists, lawyers, real estate developers, marketing consultants, CEOs of large and small non-profits, retirees who flip houses, lawn care service owners, restaurateurs, auto dealers, investment advisors, and mass purveyors of magazine subscriptions: All of them told me they were entrepreneurs.

Clearly, being an entrepreneur is in vogue. Like actor and writer, entrepreneur isn’t just a job, it’s a way to define yourself. This definition includes a lot of really attractive characteristics—vision, tenacity, autonomy, boundless energy, risk tolerance, the ability to turn a great idea into a moneymaker, the ability to do something really hard, like start a business from scratch—which is probably why so many people want to be considered part of the club.

Obviously, calling yourself something doesn’t make it so. This is what an entrepreneur actually does:

1. Puts his or her money at risk, whether it’s cash or signing for loans or both.
2. Brings an original and potentially revolutionary idea, service, or product into the marketplace.
3. Runs and grows the business, day in and day out.
4. Stands to gain or lose—sometimes substantially—from its success.
5. Works exceptionally long hours, especially in the beginning.

Why is it so important for people over 50 to grasp this?

The idea of being an entrepreneur is glamorous from a distance. No one else is your boss; you don’t have office politics to deal with, or a glass ceiling, or arbitrary rules about dress codes and vacation time and expense reports.

People in their 50s and 60s who lose their jobs are statistically unlikely to find comparable employment with comparable responsibility at comparable wages to their former position. This is especially true for middle managers. For anyone displaced from a satisfying career, or anyone unhappy in a current job, entrepreneurship looks like an inviting pathway to success.

For some it will be. For many it is a catastrophically bad choice.

I’m beginning a series of interviews with entrepreneurs over the age of 50 who meet the five criteria above. I’ll be telling their stories and sharing their experiences and insights. Let me know if you have an entrepreneurial tale to tell. We’ll do our best to include it in a future article or blog post.

12 responses to “My dentist, the entrepreneur”

  1. Jari Searns says:

    You must be joking my friend…look in the dictionary under entrepreneur and you will see Rick’s picture…he is a serial entrepreneur; but I’ll tell you something honestly; it’s an adventure that gets a whole lot harder to master as you age…and I speak from personal and very recent experience.

    Jari

    • George Schofield says:

      Pretty funny coming from you. As if Rick’s picture defined Entrepreneur and yours didn’t after all these years of side by side entrepreneurial creations. He may be one propeller but you are the other.

  2. Irwin L Davis says:

    Very thought provoking theory. Clearly links success, time of life and need to properly address how to accept the newness of the present . I will be anxious to read the responses.

  3. Tracy Lamond says:

    Is this the indicator of the top of the entreprenuer market then? The start-up bubble? Or just an indicator that people are talking about taking risks again after a long period of financial drudgery? Or just cocktail humble-bragging?

    • George Schofield says:

      I think it’s a mixture of all of those things occasionally but what it really is is a revolution in what we admire and desire to be. Not so long ago our heroes were the ones who “made it” early and retired. I seldom hear about those folks now. Our new heroes include a whole lot of people making large and small differences with very creative businesses at a whole variety of ages.

  4. Barbara Bechelli says:

    Gee, George. Every profession that was listed as “entrepeneuer” made me laugh out loud. These professions are used to using ‘other people’s money’ or an arrangement is already in place, and are clueless as to the cost of putting a key into the door every day to open up a business. I have the scars to prove what it means to be an entrepeneur and wear them proudly. My late husband and I worked very hard to build our business and wouldn’t trade a minute of that battle for working for someone else.

    We had an idea, a mutual passion for that idea and then put it to work.

    Good luck? Perhaps in some cases. Hard work? You’d better believe it!

    • Barbara Bechelli says:

      George – And one more thing. In today’s Wall Street Journal (Monday August 25) The Small Business section is devoted to Entrepreneur’s and other related topics. “How An Entrepreneur’s Zeal Can Destroy A Startup”. I read it with great interest.

      Barbara

    • George Schofield says:

      Hi Barbara. You and Dick have always been among my business heroes. What you did shoulder to shoulder was a tribute to your dreams and to both of you. I’m so glad you responded. Thanks.

  5. Steve Carnevale says:

    Great and timely blog George. People over 50 almost have to be entrepreneurs but most are not suited or don’t have the skill set. having said that, here is a recent article from the Financial Times which will provide some encouragement and perspective….

    In Praise of the Late Arrivals

    By Jonathan Moules

    In tune with the age: William Agush started his app business Shuttersong at the age of 58

    At the age of 58 William Agush was told by the five-year-old Boston technology start-up where he was working as a contractor that he was surplus to requirements. So, after a 30-year career in various salaried posts at various IT companies, large and small, Mr Agush decided to found his own app business, Shuttersong.

    The idea, sparked by a “talking” picture frame that he found while tidying his study, was to allow smartphone users to attach sound files to their digital pictures and share them with friends over Twitter or Facebook. Although Mr Agush now wears a hearing aid in both ears, he is a big fan of the spoken word, an interest nurtured by listening to talk shows on US National Public Radio.

    “It was a wonderful epiphany,” he says, noting that the notion of an app came while he was looking for a notebook that he had spent years filling with business ideas.

    Now Mr Agush is hoping to close a second round of equity funding before he turns 60 in February. This would increase his war chest to £8.3m, enough for his team, in Boston and London, to further develop the app’s functionality so they can move to charging users.
    Shuttersong’s first and second round of funding, raising a total of $2.1m, included money from partners at Boston law firm Bingham McCutchen. “I think they felt the person they were giving money to was trustworthy,” Mr Agush says. “These kids who found bus¬inesses straight after leaving school have no operating skills. They have passion but they burn through cash because they make mistakes that a seasoned business person would not make.”

    Many of Shuttersong’s early adopters have been those young graduates Mr Agush feels are so ill-prepared to launch ventures. But the app has also proved a hit with retirees, who download Shuttersong to share memories of projects they have undertaken in retirement. Corporate users have also created material for marketing campaigns, he says.

    This year Shuttersong was selected for V2Venture, a pitching contest run by South by Southwest, the annual geek gathering in Austin, Texas. Mr Agush was the oldest finalist.

    I think they felt the person they were giving money to was trustworthy

    “I see no reason why anyone in their fifties should not start a tech business,” he says. “But if you are my age and considering going down the app path I would caution against creating anything to do with dating or other services that might be considered a bit creepy.”
    Like other tech founders, Mr Agush relies on sharing office space with fellow early-stage ventures. However, he is the only person in the room in a shirt and tie. On a visit to the UK, he is speaking in one of the old Southwark warehouses that are home to some of London’s hottest start-ups, such Zoopla and Joseph Joseph . As he talks he fiddles with his collar, apparently more uncomfortable with his choice of clothing than his new career.

    “Everybody gets older, you cannot stop that,” he says. “We are all now expected to live to 90 or 100, so what the hell are we going to do for all these years? Retirement is not the same as it was for my father.”

    Mr Agush’s decision to become a founder in the run-up to three score years is bang on trend, according to start-up statistics. In July, the UK edition of Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, which analyses early-stage start-up activity, found that 6.5 per cent of Britons aged 50 and over are launching new ventures, the highest proportion yet, eclipsing the 6 per cent of 18-to-29-year-olds starting up.
    Many older founders are for¬ced to consider making their own way bec¬ause of losing a job, but others do so because they spy opport¬unities, says Jonathan Levie, professor of entrepreneurship at Strathclyde University and co-author of the Gem report. “With the over-fifties, increasing their income is a bigger motivator for starting their business than independence,” he says. “With younger entrepreneurs, it is the opposite.”

    Martyn Curley, 63, and Steve Oldbury, 59, who founded a professional pitch pre-paration service, Bidwriting.com, as quinquagenarians in 2007, are clear¬ly ambitious for their company having joined a business growth and development programme run by the UK’s Cranfield School of Management. “One of the advantages of being 50-plus is that we have come through several previous recessions,” says Mr Curley, formerly a director at FTSE 250 company Connaught. “Those lessons learnt have proved invaluable . . . We fully understand both our market and what our customers want.”

    Entrepreneurs over 50 are less like¬ly to express fear of failure, according to the Gem UK research. They are also less likely to say they need mentoring support, but that could be viewed as a weakness when successful entrepreneurship is so much about learning from others.

    Geraldine Abrahams launched Glasgow-based infant products business Tummy With Mummy four years ago when she was 60. The business, which sells a foldaway baby seat designed to give infants a gentle physical workout, is the crystallisation of an idea Ms Abrahams had been nurturing for years as a mother of five children who worked as a freelance journalist, including on health.
    A granddaughter modelled the seat for the website at three months, and although turnover was barely six figures this year, it is profitable, with 90 per cent of sales from overseas customers. Help with setting up the business and finding export markets has come from Business Gateway Glasgow’s programme and Scottish Enterprise.

    However, day-to-day entrepreneurial guidance comes from Ms Abrahams’ sons David and Mike, who joined as head of manufacturing and marketing respectively. They are also minority shareholders. “Had I been doing this on my own, I know I wouldn’t be still here now,” Ms Abrahams says. “It needed that input of youthful determination from my sons as well as their loyal support.”

    Building a business takes time, admits Ms Abrahams, who had waited until her youngest child started university before creating her company.

    There are charitable bodies that help older people set up in business, but Ms Abrahams dislikes the idea of specialist advice for particular age groups: “It really shouldn’t matter. An entrepreneur is an entrepreneur.”

    Will the age of the oldest founders continue to rise? Not according to Prof Levie. “The start-up rate drops drastically after the age of 64,” he says, adding that inhibiting factors such as deteriorating physical health accelerate after this point.
    “Entrepreneurship among older people may rise a bit as retirement ages rise, but I don’t think the rise will be very strong.”

    • George Schofield says:

      Thanks, Steve. As a real live working entrepreneur yourself, what’s the single most important piece of advice you would give to aspiring, first time entrepreneurs?

  6. David Lubert says:

    The criteria for entrepreneur seem oddly similar to the criteria one might set up for parents raising children……Just saying…!

    George, you are spot on, now three years past the 50 mark, I fit the characteristics you listed for people in their 50’s and 60’s trying to find a satisfying career…..My search continues , but it requires starting anew, new schooling, and re-adjusting. Just go back to when you were 25, but you are 53! Stay tuned…….

    • George Schofield says:

      Love it, Dave. I watched you and your career for a long time as you know, I think even before your son was born. I hadn’t until now made the important connection re how entrepreneur-like parenting can be. Our parent business (children and our taking responsibility where it’s required and creating space for them where it is not) keeps changing. Same for our careers (if we’re lucky). Doesn’t always come for free, of course, but there wasn’t a guaranty on the wrapper when we or our kids were born.

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