What is holding back older entrepreneurs?

The average age of a successful start-up founder is 45, yet why do so many older people struggle with getting started? asks our columnist Suzanne Noble.

Group of varying age women sitting chatting and smiling


According to the Harvard Business Review, the average age of a successful start-up founder is 45. Forbes reported last week that the likelihood of success increases until aged 60. Despite this, one of the most widely held assumptions for those attending Startup School for Seniors is that they have left starting a business too late. “Am I past it?” we commonly hear.

Despite all the evidence pointing to an older founder being more successful, many struggle with getting started. Here are three reasons why.

Lack of diversity

The startup ecosystem isn’t encouraging to older entrepreneurs, especially women and people of colour. When we read examples of older startup success stories, it’s nearly always older, white men (Anne Boden of Starling Bank, the exception that proves the rule). The most recent article in Forbes is a prime example, citing the following examples of older, successful founders:

“Eric Yuan created Zoom at 41, Bill Porter founded E-Trade at 54, Bernie Marcus founded Home Depot when he was 50, Bob Parsons founded Go Daddy at 47, Reed Hastings started Netflix when he was 37, Robert Noyce started Intel at 41, Leo Goodwin founded Geico at 50, Vera Wang designed her first dress at 40 and Workday was cofounded by Aneel Bhusri at 40 and David Duffield at 65.”

Count the women? One. We need to see and read about more diverse role models at all stages of business – not only the unicorns.

Fear of failure

Fear of failure is another factor holding would-be older founders back. If you’ve held down a corporate job for many years where failing may get you fired, it can take a while to grasp that starting a business will involve failure or a lot of trial and error. “Everything you’re teaching us is counterintuitive to what we’ve been taught our entire working life,” said a former chemical engineer turned guitar maker on our course.

Social media ignorance

Many equate being au fait with the latest feature on TikTok or Instagram as a necessary skill for those who are starting up a business. They lament their lack of interest or expertise in social media as a significant drawback in getting their idea off the ground. And while it’s true that understanding how using social media may help you to reach new customers and where it fits in with one’s overall marketing strategy, it’s not the only way to find one’s audience.

The older people my co-founder Mark Elliott and I encountered on Startup School are not trying to create the next Zoom, Facebook or Microsoft. They want a business more suited to their complex lives and expertise which they can manage singlehandedly or with minimal support. It may be a consultancy or a hobby from which they can generate an income; many want to turn their professional expertise into an online course or workshop. They are not striving to be
multimillionaires and have more realistic ambitions.

We can all help to create more older founders simply by being more inclusive and by showing them that it’s possible for them and not the elite few. For a start, that means promoting social media courses that display older faces as part of its advertising. Showcasing older business owners in the press at all business stages, of varying ethnicities and gender, not simply the white twenty and thirty-something men and women. Accelerators and incubators can include more senior
people intent on creating fast-scaling businesses.

Let’s stop this polarised idea that starting businesses is only for the young but that anyone can start a business at any age as long as you have a sound idea and the will to succeed.

*Suzanne Noble is co-founder of the Start-up School for Seniors which runs a programme that helps older workers realise their entrepreneurial potential.

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