Older entrepreneurs face unique challenges, valuable advantages

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When they picture the modern American entrepreneur, many people imagine Mark Zuckerberg-types -- young, tech-savvy, fresh out of college. But when it comes to successful entrepreneurship, the best years of life may be after 50.

According to a survey by the nonprofit Kauffman Foundation, Americans aged 55 to 64 start new business ventures at a higher rate than any other age group, including twentysomethings. In 2010, the survey said, 23 percent of new entrepreneurs were aged 55 to 64, up from 14 percent in 1996.

In May, the U.S. Small Business Association and the AARP announced a partnership targeting this demographic. Aimed at business owners and would-be entrepreneurs over the age of 50, the partnership will offer counseling and training as well as online resources such as webinars and self-assessments customized for so-called "encore entrepreneurs." The SBA has already set up a dedicated Web page and self-assessment tool.

Joyce Kane, 56, of Robinson, was one among thousands when she was laid off from her mid-level management job during the nation's financial downturn in the fourth quarter of 2008. A worker in infrastructure and telecommunications management for more than 30 years, Ms. Kane suddenly found herself without anywhere to go.

"For somebody who was over the age of 50, it wasn't a great time to look for a replacement job," she said. "But not doing anything was not an option."

A Government Accountability Office report found that in 2011, workers over the age of 50 who lost their jobs, like Ms. Kane, struggled more than any other group to gain employment.

Ms. Kane turned to entrepreneurship, opening a franchise of the administrative support business Cybertary in June 2009. The company offers low-cost virtual administrative assistants to small businesses.

Stephen Cohen left the corporate world at age 50 for different reasons.

Mr. Cohen, 62, of Squirrel Hill, was 50 years old when he fell asleep at the wheel of his car on the turnpike from Monroeville. Though nobody was injured, it was a wakeup call that caused him to reevaluate his busy lifestyle. He left his job in the marketing divisions of a health insurance company and started a small marketing firm, Keystone By Design, which now has more than 30 clients.

Mr. Cohen, whose firm advises many older small business owners, sees more and more people who have been laid off at the end of long careers and who are looking toward entrepreneurship rather than re-entering the job market. "Opening a business is the American way of starting new," he said.

Others are simply searching for a way to spend more time with their families, Mr. Cohen said, or for more financial independence.

Mr. Cohen opened Keystone By Design with the help of SCORE, a nonprofit that provides counseling for the SBA, and he now mentors other small business owners through that organization.

"Just because you're 50 or 60 and have worked for somebody else doesn't mean that you know how to run a business," he said. "It means you know how to do a job, which is different. That's where the SBA becomes important."

Older entrepreneurs, Mr. Cohen said, often believe that their many years spent working 9-to-5 jobs will allow them to succeed as small business owners. But he notes that because small business owners need to be aware of all aspects of a company, from the financial to the technological to the legal, even the most seasoned workers may need outside advice and support.

"We think about all those pieces that people hadn't begun to think about because they were so wrapped up in production," Mr. Cohen said.

Older entrepreneurs face other unique challenges, said Carl Knoblock, the SBA's Western Pennsylvania district director, and he said the AARP/SBA partnership will be designed to address them.

The biggest hurdle, Mr. Knoblock said, is that many are not tech-savvy: "In today's world, they have to be." He added that the SBA's offerings for over-50 entrepreneurs will focus on the importance of websites and "how to make social media a partner to your success."

Another obstacle that many older entrepreneurs face is flexibility. "They have to learn to turn on a dime with the market," Mr. Knoblock explained, which is a skill not often taught in the traditional workforce.

But starting a small business after 50 can also provide significant advantages over younger entrepreneurs who are early or mid-career.

Older entrepreneurs, he said, have gained valuable experience from their time working for larger companies. They understand better what products and services are desirable, and can draw on years of customer service and managerial experience.

Another advantage of trying entrepreneurship after 50 can be the financial resources that have been built up over a career. "You need a source of financing other than the bank," said Mr. Cohen, since loans are notoriously difficult for small businesses to obtain.

The answer for Ms. Kane, and many other older entrepreneurs, was her retirement fund. She leveraged her 401k from her most recent employer to open the Cybertary franchise, an option that, although risky, would not be available to younger entrepreneurs.

Perhaps most importantly, Mr. Cohen said, older entrepreneurs are willing to seek help when they need it, whether it be with social media or legal advice. "People who are over 50 understand that they don't know it all," he said.

Ms. Kane said she loves the "sheer independence" of small business ownership, and the direct impact she can have on customers and employees. She expects her Cybertary business to become profitable by June 2013, the third anniversary of the company's launch.

Meanwhile, though, she doesn't regret taking the plunge. "I've found my passion," she said.


Molly Hensley-Clancy: mclancy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1410.


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