Older entrepreneurs find new niche in startups

Did you see 27-year-old Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg? Or maybe Ben Milne, who created two successful companies in his 20s, including the mobile payment darling Dwolla? Or Ben Silbermann, who 10 years after graduating from Des Moines‘ Roosevelt High School helped launch one of the fastest growing websites ever with Pinterest?

But if you look beyond those headline-grabbing names, you’re more likely to find a baby boomer launching a new business.

Over the past decade, the highest rate of entrepreneurial activity belongs to the 55 to 64 age group, according to a study by the Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City, Mo.-based entrepreneurship institute. The 20 to 34 age bracket has the lowest rate.

Kauffman’s latest study shows that about 23% of new entrepreneurs in 2010 were in the 55 to 64 age group, compared with 15% in 1996.

“When people think startups, they think kids,” said Christian Gurney of Torsion Mobile, a year-old Des Moines tech firm. He and co-founder Richard Kirsner’s combined ages are 114, and they say it’s no liability.

“We tell clients, ‘We’ve made lot of mistakes and we’re not likely to repeat them.’ That gets chuckles, but also wry smiles,” Gurney said. “They’ve worked with the new startup sensation, a 20-something, and 50% of the time it flamed out.”

This month, Kauffman will begin a series of meetings around the country to promote entrepreneurism among baby boomers, generally defined as those born between 1946 and 1964. As job security gets shakier, Kauffman and other groups are raising awareness of the benefits of starting a business — both for boomers and the economy.

If you equate innovation with youth, you’re hardly alone. Some of the top venture capitalists in Silicon Valley have gushed about investing in 20-somethings full of creativity and free of family entanglements.

“I find that people fundamentally stop trying new things after about age 30,” 57-year-old venture capitalist Vinod Khosla has repeatedly said in speeches. “After 45, people basically die. … They keep doing what they were doing before.”

The age bias is real, said Mike Colwell, who advises entrepreneurs as executive director of the Business Innovation Zone, a nonprofit accelerator in Des Moines. But it cuts both ways, depending on the industry and the clientele.

If you have a software company, “gray hair is a benefit if you’re selling to a banker,” he said. “If you’re trying to invent the next Twitter, it’s better to be in your 20s, to know your users.”

Lots of people in their 40s and 50s come to Colwell to discuss launching a business. Some have lost their jobs. Some are not ready to leave their job but want to see whether their startup idea is viable, he said.

“They have a passion for something. They see a problem that needs to be solved,” he said.

Half the people who come to Colwell decide not to pursue their startup ideas. That percentage is higher for the older age group, he said, because of the risk or the time required.

Boomers often have some natural advantages for entrepreneurship, including experience, expertise and finances.

Those considering leaving a corporate career, however, face a huge hurdle: the cost of health insurance, especially for people with pre-existing conditions.

“It’s real, and it does stop people,” Colwell said. Solving the problem “would open up a large number of people who want to start businesses.”

Colwell, 50, has worked with tech startups for much of his career, but he’s just recently become an entrepreneur. He’s launched two companies: casesimpl, which makes cases for mobile electronics and accessories, and Notify Works, an automated notification system for lawyers.

Would-be business people also come to Sylvia DeWitt, a boomer and business broker. She helps people buy and sell businesses through IAbusinessesforSALE.com, a business she started three years ago after she left as a vice president of American Express.

She also is administrator of the Iowa Entrepreneurs Coalition, which includes 431 members of all ages. The group has meet-ups electronically and in person to share ideas.

Most of the potential buyers she sees are in their 30s and 40s, but she’s seen buyers as old as 82.

“Many baby boomers are not interested in retirement. They’re always interested in building something,” she said.

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