Older entrepreneurs finding new opportunities


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After more than 20 years in the insurance industry, John Tubridy took a buyout package and went to work for a career transition firm, where he was tasked with helping companies downsize.

“I was like George Clooney in that movie ‘Up in the Air,’” Mr. Tubridy said. “I was helping people plan their navigation out of the corporate world.”

And he said most of the people he talked to were all too glad to be making the change: Sick of the corporate environment, they looked forward to being in more control of their own destinies.

Mr. Tubridy decided that appealed to him, as well.

So ten years ago, at age 50, he became a franchise specialist for FranNet, a consulting firm that matches entrepreneurs with franchise options.

"What I'm doing has always been my dream: To run my own business," he said. "I realized I loved the planning aspect of it, and now I'm able to help others plan their businesses, too." He used to have an office on the North Side, but found that being mobile worked better for him. 

While the word "entrepreneur" usually evokes an image of a fresh-out-of-college idealist with an idea for the next big thing, entrepreneurs who have a little more mileage on their odometers have taken the wheel and are becoming a driving force.

A recent report from the Kauffman Foundation shows an uptick over the last decade in older entrepreneurs. In 2003, people between the ages of 55 and 64 accounted for 18 percent of new entrepreneurs. By 2013, that number rose to 23 percent. The number of new entrepreneurs between 45 and 54 also increased over that time period from 25 percent in 2003 to 30 percent last year. 

"I think a lot of older entrepreneurs have done that corporate journey and are ready for a change," Mr. Tubridy said. "But this isn't something you can just kick the tires and try it out. You have to have a burning desire to do it." 

Carl Knoblock, district director of the Small Business Administration of Western Pennsylvania, said the organization realized with baby boomers retiring — many of them earlier than planned — there was a segment of potential entrepreneurs with a lot of advantages in their favor: experience, some money set aside, and a sense of confidence. And most of them have a clear idea either of what they want to do, or what they really don't want to do. 

"Either it's something they've always had as a hobby, or based on an experience they had in the business world that they think they can do better," Mr. Knoblock said. "A lot of them come from bigger companies and see how things move, and the feel like they can expedite things if they go out on their own." 

Some of the stumbling blocks for older entrepreneurs are on the digital side, Mr. Knoblock said. A website is crucial, but it's not enough to have a cookie-cutter website design, because one size does not fit all, he said. 

"And they have to be thinking about social media as soon as they open their business," he said. "There may be a fear factor there, but they have to get up to speed." 

A lower risk tolerance is another challenge, he said. "An older person might be more settled into a routine, but you have to be able to change yourself, like a chameleon," Mr. Knoblock said. "That's one thing younger entrepreneurs do have: passion, and maybe a little bit of naivete, they always think 'this is going to happen.'"

An older worker with a track record of experience is likely to be considered a better risk for financing than a younger counterpart might be, Mr. Knoblock said.

And Mr. Tubridy said, fairly or unfairly, an older worker might be perceived as more reliable. "When you've left a corporate position, you're usually more credible in people's eyes. You've been around," he said. "That means something, especially to customers." 

A lot of the second-career entrepreneurs who come to him are also thinking about legacy building, Mr. Tubridy said: They want to have something to leave to their children.

"They see it's a tough job market out there, and think, 'Wouldn't it be nice to have something I've created that I can hand off to my kids someday,'" Mr. Tubridy said. "That's not usually something on the twenty-somethings' minds."

Sandy Burkett is one of those entrepreneurs who had a good idea what she didn't want to do (no food service companies), but she and her husband Steve were sure they wanted to try running their own business. The family had relocated seven or eight times for Mr. Burkett's job. Then in 2003, he took a buyout package and they started looking for their own opportunity. 

They opted not to go the franchise route, and instead pursued a business opportunity that allowed them to buy the company and run it independently. They opened their custom sign shop, Carnegie-based Vital Signs in 2005, and have not looked back since.

"I utilized every bit of training I could find because I realized it takes a village," said Mrs. Burkett, 54. "When you're investing a substantial portion of your retirement, you have to be really ready." 

Running the business has been what she hoped for, she said, giving her and her husband a feeling of authority they didn't have before.

"This is the difference between waiting for the other shoe to drop in the corporate world, and having control over whether you fail or succeed," she said.

The local SBA is partnering with the AARP for a free workshop aimed at older people looking to start their own businesses. "Encore Entrepreneurs" will be at the Squirrel Hill branch of the Carnegie Library on April 29. For more information, contact the Western Pennsylvania SBA at 412-395-6560. 


Kim Lyons: klyons@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1241. Twitter: @SocialKimly

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