The Grandma Moses of Startups?
January 30, 2013 7:06 AM   Subscribe

I'm pushing 50, but I still have urges. Entrepreneurial urges. Ideas for products. Cool websites. Apps. Little businesses. Stuff that makes some money. But: Every cool startup I see comes from a 12-year-old. College is middle age. 30 is elder statesman. 40 is dead. I've never done this before. Its scary. Where are my role models? Networks? Inspirations? Mentors? Resources? Snowflakes inside.

Here are my specifics, but general responses welcome:

Current situation: Most of my life I've been working for The Man or in some kind of paid job. Laid off last year but doing pretty well consulting on my own. The ideas are a step or three outside of the work I usually do. I know a little programming, design, business. Spouse's income is about half of what we need and provides health insurance, so food's on the table and mortgage gets paid.

Obstacles: Depression. Introverted. Akrasia. Poor time management and executive functioning. Energy level can be medium to low at times. (But see comment on meds below.) These have been issues through my life. Years ago, as a younger man, I tried some things outside of a structured work environment, like freelance writing. It did no go well. Spouse's patience has its limits. Also: Long-term money and financial security. We have decent retirement and savings, but not enough.

Assets: I've never liked working in an office and was really happy to get laid off. Have finally found the right combination of meds and exercise and therapy to keep me moving forward about 75% of the time. Spouse is supportive of something creative and motivating within reasonable limits.

Does it even make sense to try? To rage, rage against the dying of the light, or go quietly into retirement? If so, what resources are there to guide and inspire?
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy to Work & Money (17 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
People like this are your role model:

"F. Murray Abraham got his first decent screen role as an actor when he was 45. The role was in the movie Amadeus and he won an Academy Award for his brilliant portrayal of Antonio Salieri. He had thought of giving up acting just two years before but thankfully didn't.

Andrea Bocelli didn't start singing opera seriously until the age of 34. Some 'experts' told him it was too late to begin.

Phyliss Diller became a comedian at the age of 37. She was told by many club owners that she was "too old" to become a success.

Stan Lee, creator of Spider-Man, was 43 when he began drawing his legendary superheroes and his partner Jack Kirby was 44 when he created The Fantastic Four.

Julia Child didn't even learn to cook until she was almost 40 and didn't launch her popular show until she was 50.

Elizabeth Jolley had her first novel published at the age of 56. In one year alone she received 39 rejection letters but finally had 15 novels and four short story collections published to great success. Mary Wesley was 71 when her first novel was published. Talk about not giving up!

Ricardo Montalban had his dream house built at the age of 68. That was when he was finally financially able to do so and he went full-speed ahead with it.

Harlan Sanders, the Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame, was 66 when he began to promote his style of cooking and create an empire.

Laura Ingalls Wilder began writing as a columnist in her 40s. Contrary to a belief begun by the TV series about her family, the popular Little House books weren't written when she was a young girl at all. They were written and published when the 'girl' was in her 60's!"

If you want more of the same, Google "people who succeeded late in life." You'll be surprised at the number of people you already know of, but didn't realize they hadn't been doing that thing until late in life.
posted by SpacemanStix at 7:18 AM on January 30, 2013 [19 favorites]

In fact, most successful startup founders are in their 40s. 20 year olds who are successful are a rarity because they lack the kind of judgement that a decade or two in the trenches give you. And besides, even with a lot of youth in the field, that's a trend, not a rule.

The more concerning thing is the depression and time management, et al. Successful business starters don't have to go at it 18 hours a day, but you do have to play while hurt--meaning that you'll have a certain amount of labour that needs to be done regardless of how you feel. Meetings, research, decisions, etc. So that's the first thing to check: Can you keep working on your business even when you've got all those other things telling you to stay in bed for the day? Ideas are cheap; execution is everything. If you can't execute, you can't succeed.

Pick one of your ideas, and start a part-time business with it. Work out the bugs, learn to discipline yourself, see what the pain points are, in a way that doesn't threaten your whole lifestyle. You don't have to risk everything for a business--that's macho bullshit.
posted by fatbird at 7:23 AM on January 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

You should look into startup incubator/accelerator programs in your area. You pitch your idea(s) to them, and if you're accepted, they'll provide support in exchange for a small piece of the company. They can help you put together a business plan, provide mentorship, and get you connected with developers/operations/financial/etc people. They may also coach you in fundraising if appropriate.

My company recently went through the SURGE Accelerator (in Houston, for energy industry startups) and it was a fantastic experience. The founders' ages ranged from 20 to 60 (best guess). Very diverse group and a wide range of ideas.
posted by DrJohnEvans at 7:23 AM on January 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

This New York Times article has a lot of their trademark madeup-trend stuff, and some of the stories are fairly crazy, but I thought you could take heart in the fact that you are better positioned than some of these people.
posted by BibiRose at 7:30 AM on January 30, 2013

You should think seriously about having financial and work partners so you can spread the risk, share and speed up the work, and have people who can help push and motivate you.
posted by Dansaman at 8:05 AM on January 30, 2013

Thomas Kirkman was an Anglican parish priest and didn't even study mathematics until he was at university, then in his forties began publishing papers in journals and became one of the major British mathematicians of the 19th century.
posted by XMLicious at 8:20 AM on January 30, 2013

This is such a fantastic starting point for a business idea. Why don't you make an app, website, or something to find others like yourself? Golden years entrepreneurs could be a new Thing. Older people have wisdom and importantly, money, and a lot of them have time.

BTW pushing 50 means you have about half your adult life left, not that you're almost dead.
posted by kellybird at 8:26 AM on January 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

I've even worked for a tech startup with a founder in his 50s. True, young people ended up buying him out, but for a good price!
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:28 AM on January 30, 2013

What's your idea (roughly speaking)? Consumer tech entrepreneurs seem to skew younger, yes. But "tech" isn't just stuff like Facebook and "entrepreneur" isn't just tech. In general I'd expect most successful entrepreneurs and even most successful tech entrepreneurs to be older.
posted by downing street memo at 8:32 AM on January 30, 2013

Age is just a number, my grandmother always said. Fuck that noise.
posted by 3491again at 8:34 AM on January 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If it helps any, I'm in my early 50s and have had trouble with depression, which sometimes turns into self-defeating procrastination. However, I'm a happy consultant and am often starting up new business-to-business products or services. Things that have helped me:

- Medication that acts on the frontal lobes, or so I'm told. I'm doing great on Valdoxan but was an emotionless slug on the SSRI that I tried.

- Designing a product that brings in a passive income. I invested 3 months and not much money in creating a membership site that teaches people to do what I do as a consultant. It brings in enough money that I can coast on that income if I don't feel like doing a lot of client work or presentations.

- Finding other entrepreneurial types to hang out with and brainstorm with. My network includes people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, but our ages don't matter. We inspire each other and sometimes form partnerships.

- Creating short-term, project-based partnerships. For example, a local contact finds a venue for me, does the local advertising, manages the registration, and arranges my flight and lodging, all for a cut of my presentation fee. That means that all I have to do is prepare the presentation and give it.

I also second DrJohnEvans' suggestion to look into an incubator. When I considered one, they would have provided a lot of support. I ended up moving away instead.
posted by ceiba at 8:34 AM on January 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

A lot of young people work at startups but I don't think the founders are all Mark Zuckerbergs - you just hear about those in the news because they make good stories. My fiance works in a startup and the CEO was in his early 40's when he founded the company. Not to say that that's "old" but he has a wife and kids and a home in the 'burbs (unlike these stories you hear about 20-somethings living 4 to a room in San Francisco).
posted by radioamy at 9:16 AM on January 30, 2013

A good first step might be a local meetup or other entrepreneur-focused event where you can meet other like-minded people and talk to them about your ideas and how to get started. These are also good places to find potential business partners and advisors. If you can't find something like this, see if your local college or chamber of commerce has any resources in this area.
posted by chickenmagazine at 9:45 AM on January 30, 2013

The only person that gives a shit how old you are is you.
posted by spilon at 9:51 AM on January 30, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I have to disagree with some of the things said above, without trying to discourage you.

I'm 55 and a "serial entrepreneur." However, after being bought out of my last company, I found that I did not relish the idea of another startup - partially because I have 2 kids in college and need to tend my "economic garden" somewhat (buyout was good, but I'm not retiring yet.)

I think each person has a different response to entrepreneurship and its pluses and minuses, so caveat emptor, but here are mine:

1. Despite what people say, there is a strong bias against older people being entrepreneurs. Particularly in the high tech world where the assumption is that without boundless amounts of energy fro 20 hour days, you can't succeed. However, this discrimination is seldom spoken of because it is technically illegal. Proving it, as with much discrimination is another story... However, this affects your ability to raise money unless you have a strong and successful track record in starting businesses.
2. That said, there are some bad things about age and entrepreneurship: sometimes you do need to draw on energy reserves you may not have. I spent the last 2 years at my last company working endless hours and, after I was bought out, it took me 6 months to recover. Frankly, I don't want to go through that again, but sometimes that's what it takes to succeed.
3. However, there are also some great things about being older, such as not having to brute force everything - you may have heard the aphorism that old age and guile will beat youth and inexperience every time? There's something to that. You also probably have a great network of people, which is good because you'll need them. Everyone "knows" about 6 degrees of separation, but they don't apply it. When you need someone with a skill, money, experience, etc., you need, you can find them through your network, but most people don't even try, despite the modern social networks. Yeah, it takes (metaphorical) balls to ask sometimes, but ask whether you're willing to give up or make that phone call to someone you don't know. If you'd rather give up, you shouldn't start!
4. I would be very wary of starting an entrepreneurial venture if you struggle with depression - there will come a point when you are totally drained and out of ideas, and you still have to find a way out. That said, since most creative people struggle with depression, and since you need to be creative to be entrepreneurial, there may not be much help for it, you just need to manage it and make sure you have someone you trust to give you an objective view when you need it.

If you do decide to take a whirl, here are the three things I believe are at the core of being a successful entrepreneur:

A. Find a way. Regardless of what happens, you have to find a way to solve whatever hits you. I've had contracts cancelled, technology fail, people I desperately need, quit. No matter what happens, you have to find a way to solve the problem. It's often useful to sleep on it if you can't see a way forward immediately, but just be sure that not only can you find a way forward, but that you will find a way forward.

B. Facts and Data. It's very easy to fool yourself into making mistakes. "It'll work the first time!" "It can't possibly take more than a month to do that!" "Of course they'll buy it once I make it!" These are classic examples of wishful thinking trumping reality. Facts, and the data that support the facts are the only defense you have against this. Nate Silver's new book The Signal and the Noise repeats this fundamental truth over and over again.

C. The most important thing in any successful entrepreneurial business is people. This is a truism that big corporations always say and everyone always nods their heads about - and then ignores. If you ignore it in a startup company, you will fail. Period. And it's not just the people who work for you, but it's everyone you deal with: customers, consultants, investors - everyone. You need them all and you need to manage the relationships to be successful. This doesn't mean you have to give them all what they want, but a reasonable amount of honesty (no, someone doesn't really need to know what you think of their taste in music), sympathy, and respect (both ways!) are necessary for success.


So, if you've made it through this, I hope it's helpful. I have tried to neither say "Go for it! It's the greatest thing ever!" (which it can be), nor to say "You're doomed if you try it!" But you may want to think carefully before jumping into the pool. As a friend of mine once commented about my lifestyle: "I wish I could pick the hours I work!" to which my wife, who was my business partner, said without missing a beat: "Yeah, it's great: You can pick any 80 hours of the week you want to work."
posted by BillW at 1:22 PM on January 30, 2013 [7 favorites]

Some inspiration from the winners of the Purpose Prize?
posted by aka burlap at 7:15 PM on January 30, 2013

Here's an article worth reading: The case for old entrepreneurs.

"In 2008, I led a research team in exploring the backgrounds of 652 U.S.-born chief executive officers and heads of product development in 502 successful engineering and technology companies established from 1995 to 2005. These were companies with real revenue -- not just the start-ups founded by the college dropouts that some venture capitalists like to fund. We learned that the average and median age of successful founders was 39. Twice as many founders were older than 50 as were younger than 25. And there were twice as many over 60 as under 20."

PS: Vinod Khosla is a pretty unaware dick at times IMHO.

I started my current company at age 42. I don't buy the idea that VC's don't like older entrepreneurs. It depends a lot on what you're trying to do. It might be a hard sell if your're starting a social network for teens. But believe me they like to see some gray hair if you want to build a chemical factory that's going to manufacture 1000's of tons a year of real stuff or they need the CEO to sell to gray haired, big-time CEO's of manufacturing companies in China. Not every start-up is some fluffy web-site or mobile phone app (NTTAWWT).

The advice to all potential entrepreneurs - start networking! Just talking to other people will generate ideas and open opportunities.
posted by Long Way To Go at 11:13 PM on January 30, 2013

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