Older entrepreneurs: Tips for business success

Here, Etienne Krieger looks at the ways for older people to ensure their venture is as secure and successful as possible.

When you think of an entrepreneur, what image usually springs to mind? Many would think of a young, tech-savvy student straight out of a top business school, embarking on a new innovative business venture. However, increasingly this is not always the case. In fact, entrepreneurs are now more commonly middle-aged professionals who have spent around 15-20 years following one particular career path, and decide to leave this to pursue their own business venture.

A recent survey of HEC Paris Executive MBA alumni revealed that the average age of an entrepreneur is now 38. Those who felt stuck in a rut in their previous careers decide to use their knowledge and experience to launch their own business, in an attempt to gain professional freedom, enhance personal development, or to increase their personal finances.
In fact, a look into some of the world’s largest and most well-known companies supports this, with many of their founder’s creating the business in the supposed ‘mid-life crisis’ age – between 35-45. For example, Honda was created by Soichiro Honda at the age of 42, LinkedIn by Reid Hoffman at 36 and Walmart by Sam Walton at 44.

In recent years, we have seen a large number of small-scale start-ups achieve rapid global success, thanks to both the advancements in technology and the emergence of greater support systems, such as start-up incubators, crowdfunding platforms and mentorship schemes, which make it significantly easier to pursue start-up dreams.

Though it is now easier to create a new business, there are still significant risks, especially for older entrepreneurs. Apart from having a professional reputation to maintain, many have a home to run and a family to support, making the stakes for an older entrepreneur much higher. However, for middle-aged professionals who decide to step away from career security to launch their own business ventures, there are ways to ensure this venture is as secure and successful as possible.

Seek a business partner

The creation of an innovative and successful business is very often the work of more than one person. Only 12 per cent of successful start-ups are run solely by one person making all of the executive decisions, whereas 72 per cent of successful start-ups are run by two or three business partners. In fact, many of the world’s most famous and profitable companies, for example Google, Apple, Microsoft and Twitter, were all co-founded. Therefore, a wise step for an aspiring entrepreneur to take would be to seek a business partner in order to share tasks and responsibility through a select few skilled and trustworthy partners.

Create a simple, clear structure

In the early stages of a start-up, a simple, precise business structure should be implemented to create cohesion in the company, so that each individual team member knows their specific role and how it benefits the business. A successful structure can help to create a business like no other, setting out expectations to all partners and ensuring their roles and responsibilities are clear to the whole organisation. This structure should be divided by skillset and importance, for instance, development and marketing is one of the most valued roles in a start-up therefore should receive an increased share of capital in a fair structure.

Build a diverse, but compatible workforce

One of the biggest challenges for a new business is uniting complementary, but diverse partners that have compatible outlooks, values and objectives. Although it is easy and tempting to employ ‘yes men’ who will happily blindly follow instructions and tasks – this is the wrong thing to do. It is important to employ people who have a range of ideas and opinions, and the confidence to challenge unwise decisions in the organisations.

Selecting diverse, confident and compatible partners is vital in creating an innovative business, with the capacity for growth. It is a complex, but useful task to evaluate a potential employee or partner’s personality and compatibility before their employment, by exchanging views, outlooks and objectives. This can determine whether or not a potential colleague shares the same goals, but also has the confidence to make their own decisions, and challenge unwise ones.

Plan for potential problems

Although a strong business structure, diverse workforce and a variety of skilled, responsible partners can create a successful business, it does not make it immune to experiencing a variety of problems. Entrepreneurs must anticipate these problems and plan how to deal with them. This can allow companies to tackle problems in the quickest and most effective way, minimising the negative consequences that these problems could cause. When problems are dealt with swiftly and efficiently, they can make a team more successful and instil more faith in a business and its leader.

Improve your skills and knowledge

A good idea or a keen spirit, however, is not enough to ensure success, which is why many potential entrepreneurs make the decision to go to a business school, in order to enhance their entrepreneurial skills and gain more knowledge which can be applied to creating a successful business. A 2014 study found that six of the world’s best 10 performing CEOs had MBA’s, proving there is a strong link between the success of a company and the skills learned at a business school.

Though traditional MBA programs have always catered for entrepreneurship, other MBA programs have seemingly lagged behind. However, now many business schools, such as HEC Paris, are building a stronger entrepreneurial focus into their Executive MBA program, offering greater opportunities to students to develop their entrepreneurial skills. These include increased and improved careers support, specific entrepreneurship focused modules and access to advanced start-up incubators, such as HEC Paris’ incubator at Station F.

If entrepreneurs make the correct decisions in the crucial early steps to build their business in the right structure, with diverse, compatible partners, and plan for any problems they may encounter, they can create a business that is a success. And the good news for older entrepreneurs is – there has never been a better time to take the plunge.

Etienne Krieger is scientific director of the Entrepreneurship Centre at HEC Paris and co-author of HEC Paris’ white paper ‘Learning from the experts: how to start your own business‘.

Further reading on older entrepreneurs

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel was the editor of SmallBusiness.co.uk from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

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