Potpourri: Taking the Entrepreneurial Leap At 50: Self-help
When I was in my mid-forties I feared the best of my life was in the past. But circumstances coupled with a long-held desire to control my own life fueled a passionate desire to recreate my world and start a successful new business. I did.
Starting over at 50
Topic A for many people I meet is “How did you do it? How did you leave an apparently successful decades long career in broadcasting and start your own business at your age?”
Because I turned 50 the year I founded my business, other 40 and 50-somethings constantly ask me what it’s like. They seek information, encouragement, and inspiration. They may be bored, unfulfilled, threatened by corporate capriciousness, or simply expressing mid-life ennui, “Is this all there is or will be to my life?”
The scope of this middle-age hunger first struck me when Babcock School of Management at Wake Forest University asked me to join a panel before MBA candidates. As an entrepreneurial newcomer alongside several multi-millionaire entrepreneurs, I asked, “What in the world could I possibly say of importance?” Organizers assured me that the comments of a business owner still dealing with startup issues are sometimes more meaningful to business newcomers than words from established masters of success. They were right.
Subsequently, others increasingly asked how I did it. One old friend called after a seminar by self-help Guru Brian Tracy. Tracy had urged the audience to hang around those who had enthusiastically and successfully taken the entrepreneurial plunge, and my friend called to “hang around” me (he later took the leap himself).
With so much interest in this, I will therefore, humbly – all entrepreneurs are humbled by the risks – offer you encouragements and warnings I have shared with others about starting over at 50.
First, two warnings intended to separate the genuine would-be entrepreneur from the casual dreamer.
Warning #1 – Buckle up for the tunnel.
For me, the first 18 months were a kind of psychological black hole. I was in equal parts enthusiastic, energetic, confident, and totally terrified. During one two-month stretch I did not earn a single penny – an ominous omen to one accustomed to a lifetime of steady paychecks. At one point, the money budgeted for starting the business dwindled to just 8 weeks worth. I now realize such early dark periods are universal as new entrepreneurs enter what I call “the tunnel.” Some find their way through it quickly; others linger there longer. I suspect starting your own business is like natural childbirth. The idea of it is attractive, but intense pain is inescapable if you actually do it. You too will enter the tunnel if you take the leap. With sufficient financial and psychological resources, including a supportive spouse, you will eventually emerge into the light.
Warning #2 – Prepare to be afraid, really afraid.
If you are not a major risk taker and place a premium on security, the sustained worry can be frightening. Midnight flop-sweats are common. (Often in bed my wife would push me away and exclaim, “You’re soaking wet!”) I equate starting your own business to living on the frontier in the early 1800’s. Every single day you know the precise terms of your existence. Survival is your only concern.
Qualification #1 – Provide what the marketplace wants.
What your business does is paramount. One early piece of advice I got is that the survival of your company in the marketplace is more important than the survival of your idea. If there is not a good market for your service or product, then change your plans until you find what works. For example, I started out producing videos, but quickly realized it was a mature business with too much competition. I immediately changed course to crisis consulting and coaching for which demand was high and competition low. No matter how dearly you cherish your dreams, do not let a bad idea pull you under because you are too stubborn to let go of it.
Qualification #2 – Have energy, people skills, persistence, and an eye on cash flow.
You have certainly seen these mentioned before and for good reason. High energy plus affability plus commitment are essential. You will have to worker harder than ever before. I subscribe to Peter Drucker’s advice that cash flow is the single most important element to business endurance. It is your Holy Grail.
Now, at last, the payoffs for respecting the warnings and meeting the qualifications.
Rewards for the leap.
I am the happiest I have been in 30 years. Resentment, a feeling that my life was thwarted, is gone. All eight cylinders of my brain are firing and my ideas and dreams do not have to pass someone else’s muster. This, I think, is the ultimate creativity. There is a glorious clarity and purity in entrepreneurism: either your ideas work or they do not. You can try and fail, try and succeed, but no one stops you from trying. It is an exhilarating freedom.
So, what about age?
Did you notice that I did not mention age once in my entrepreneurial advice? Whether old astronaut or young unknown, age is not the determinant. Attitude is, as captured in the aphorism: “Once in a while in life you have to jump off a cliff and build your wings on the way down!”
Remember, a decade from now you will be ten years older whether you jump or not!