How to Start a Great Business At Any Age

By Rob Kornblum | Startup

May 21

You dream about it.

Starting your own business.

On your long commute or when you struggle through another meeting, it’s on your mind. Like a little flicker of flame ready to burst into a full-on fire.

You know you can find more purpose and meaning in your work. Maybe you even have an idea for your new business.

But…

Wait. There’s a “but”?

You have a nagging voice telling you that you’re too old and that starting companies is for young kids. You can’t sleep on a sofa anymore or eat Ramen. You have responsibilities.

Tons of successful founders start later in life

Here’s the deal: there really isn’t such a thing as “too old” to be a founder.

Robin Chase had been a consultant and a writer, when at the age of 40, she came up with the idea for Zipcar. Donald Fisher founded The Gap at 41. Martha Stewart had worked on Wall Street before publishing her first book at age 41. She didn’t launch Martha Stewart Living until she was 48.

The age constraint is a mental block. If you look around, you will see many successful people who began something new and incredible in their 40s or 50s.

This is the best time ever to be an entrepreneur

Want to know the best part?

There has never been a better time in history to start your company and begin taking control of your work life.

The explosion of the Internet and mobile devices means that almost all of humanity is connected. It is less expensive, less risky, easier to find customers around the globe, easier to find expertise, and easier to deploy low-cost tools than at any point in time.

Historically, if you wanted to reach customers to sell your products, you had to go through distributors who would in turn sell to retailers. Today, with a few clicks, you can set up an online store. Or you can also sell through Amazon, Etsy, or eBay.

If your product is yourself and your knowledge, you had to attend local events or conferences. Today, you set up a blog on your own, or you write on Medium or LinkedIn and establish yourself as a thought leader.

Entrepreneurship is accessible to everyone.

Find your purpose, but don’t follow your passion

To be truly fulfilled, we need more than most corporate jobs will give. It’s not just that most jobs don’t provide the income or recognition. Studies have shown that we do our best work—our most interesting, most creative, most fulfilling work—when we have a sense of mastery and purpose. Finding that purpose is one of the keys to successful entrepreneurship.

I am not suggesting, though, that you “follow your passion” for your new business. Many of us are passionate about hobbies, but that doesn’t make them good businesses. Instead, I suggest that you look for a critical intersection of passion, skill, and market demand.

Put more simply, find an idea that combines what you are passionate about with what you are good at with what the market wants. That’s where the magic occurs.

Passion diagram

But, it isn’t just about finding an idea. You also need to get to the root of why you want to start a business. Articulating your big why serves as a powerful motivator to get you through the inevitable rocky times of launching a new business.

Experience helps you generate ideas

As a prospective mid-life entrepreneur, you may be one of those who know you want to start a company but don’t yet have the right idea.

One of the benefits of having a few decades of work experience is that you have a broader perspective on problems that need solving. Most great entrepreneurs find a problem and solve it.

Generate ideas for your new business

KangoDo founder Sara Schaer started her business to solve a very real problem for working moms like her- getting the kids to and from their activities. KangaDo is basically an Uber for kids, with very heavily pre-screened drivers.

What is the burning problem that you want to see fixed?

When you can’t wait any longer to start

There could be a thousand reasons that you haven’t started a business yet. The real point is that you are ready now. You have built up your skills in marketing, product development, planning, hiring, and managing. You have built up your network, a critical asset for mid-life founders.

You’re ready to get on your way. Starting a business doesn’t mean you have to quit your day job. I get it—you have bills to pay.

But right now, you have reached the point where you just can’t wait any longer.

You probably feel like Kelly Cooper. Cooper was an executive at Athleta, helping to grow that company until it was acquired by The Gap. When the chance arose to join some former colleagues to start a men’s athletic apparel company, Cooper jumped at the chance:

“I guess there is a tipping point in your life when you say, “I’m too old to do a startup—no, wait, this is the right time to do a startup because I need to do it before it’s too late!” The timing really factored into my decision. My gut was that it was the perfect time for me to roll the dice.”

Make a Plan

For many of us who start our businesses on the side, there can be a tendency not to set concrete goals with timelines and accountability. Remember the old Irish proverb:

Nodding the head does not row the boat.

It isn’t enough to start a business and have some vague ideas about what and when you are going to accomplish. You need to hold yourself and your team accountable to specific milestones.

At this point in your life, you have probably planned some pretty big projects. Maybe you planned a big product release at work, a huge non-profit fundraiser, or a wedding. These are critical skills that you need to put to work in getting your new business off the ground.

If this is your first new business, you need to understand that your plan is going to change pretty rapidly as you learn more about your customer and your product. You don’t need a full business plan at this point, just a short document that outlines your assumptions and how you are going to test them.

Find your co-founder & team

Many people mistakenly think that great companies are built on great ideas. The truth is that great teams build great companies, because execution is far more important than the idea.

There are two huge advantages that mid-life entrepreneurs have in building a world-class team. The first is that you have a much better sense of who you are and how you work. Lew Cirne, has founded two software companies, the most recent New Relic, now a publicly traded powerhouse. Cirne reflected on the differences:

This is a major thing for a founder starting their company later [in life]. The difference between me running a company in my twenties and me running New Relic in my forties comes back to that self-awareness and self-discovery. I’m far more comfortable with me as I am, with weakness and warts and all, instead of trying to be…someone I wasn’t.

The second advantage you have is your network. Cofounders and key team members can come from people you have worked with before, or from your broader network. When former Constant Contact executive Eric Groves was founding his new company Alignable, he turned to Venkat Krishnamurthy as his technical cofounder. The pair had met through a VC friend and lived in the same town. They are now building Alignable into a local business network and have raised over $4 million to do it.

You can make family work with your startup

Family considerations cannot be overlooked for mid-life founders. How are your spouse and kids going to react to the idea of you starting a business?

Part of the reason most entrepreneurs choose this path is for the freedom, the ability to set your own schedule.

So how do you balance family time with the time demands of a new company?

First and foremost, realize that you can start a business AND see your family. There will be some sacrifices, but if being with family is one of the reasons you are starting the business, you can make that happen.

David Mandell, 47-year old founder and CEO of Pivotdesk had this to say:

I would say one of the things about being an older entrepreneur is that I realize the value to the business of family time. I’ve seen what it’s like when you burn out, when you work too many hours, and you’re miserable and your family life deteriorates and none of those things help you from a business perspective. I think spending time at home with my kids and my family makes me better in the office. So I make time for that.

Surround yourself with the right support

They say that you reflect the five people that you spend the most time with.

Here is the situation- you are making a big change in your life by starting a company. Those five people you are with the most probably aren’t up to the task of supporting your efforts. Do you need to fire your friends or spouse? No of course not, but you need to find some new friends and some mentors who can help you through the bumpy patches.

When I set out to write my first book, I needed mentors and an accountability team to help. I started blogging, joined a writing course, and joined multiple Facebook groups of writers and accountability partners.

Make It Happen

However old you are, you can do this.

When you watch Shark Tank, you’re thinking, “I could do that!”

You can change your life and the lives of others through your new business.

Don’t settle.

It’s Never Too Late to Startup!

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About the Author

Rob loves helping entrepreneurs and start-up founders boost their chance of success via simple growth strategies. He's a 25-year start-up veteran, serial entrepreneur, and former venture capitalist.

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