50Plus Entrepreneurship ..... choice or necessity?

Cannon Beach, Oregon at sunset

Cannon Beach, Oregon at sunset

In a recent pair of posts in August I began to focus on the 50Plus demographic and the needs we already have or will discover in this new phase of life. In the first post Finding Purpose: Good Advice at Any Age I highlighted the need many of us have to find purpose, to do something we love, that will make a meaningful impact on the world. My conclusion was that entrepreneurial thinking will be a necessary tool to find our purpose this time. The second post Diversity Drives Innovation … Don’t Forget Age Diversity picked up with a discussion highlighting how much innovation in this country is currently being led by a highly undiversified group of millennial males in Silicon Valley. I pointed out that at 50Plus we have lots of current needs and will continue to have more, some that are a direct result of the biological aging process, while others that will arise just because we have more time. My conclusion was that we can’t wait for teams of millennial males in Silicon Valley to read our minds. We can’t be afraid to step up and participate in the innovations that will be needed. I closed the second post by saying that I would be writing more soon and hinting at the launch of a new 50Plus focused website. Unfortunately the months of September and October ended up being devoted to traveling to be with and/or take care of three family members on the right tail of the 50Plus age curve all in their mid-90s. These trips interfered with my blogging and launch schedules but strengthened my resolve to help others in the 50Plus demographic understand the challenges of aging in the US, the need for entrepreneurial thinking to establish a sense of purpose and mount the conviction to have an impact, especially on our own financial plans, as we age

Many of you know me but for those who are new let me give you the highlights of my journey. It will help you understand my qualifications to speak about entrepreneurship in the 50Plus demographic as well as to propose solutions based on entrepreneurial thinking.

I am a 50Plus serial entrepreneur bitten by the entrepreneurial bug in my early 40s. My first serious success was working with partners to build and operate broadband systems in four major countries of Europe which led to a healthy exit in 2002. That exit gave me the gift of time to devote to my young family in the formative years for my two sons. I guarded my time and got involved only in projects which didn't require travel that could disrupt coaching Little League, helping with homework and just being present for my boys. In 2009 my focus shifted to not just doing, but teaching, entrepreneurship. It started when I planted a seed for the Innovation Center in the old town hall in Stamford, CT which finally launched in 2012 while serving as an important catalyst for the new state level innovation ecosystem, CT Next. I ran two accelerator programs together with a partner, Andy Moss, as part of the broader state effort that created CT Next. The first program was a pilot to test a curriculum while the second effort was done in partnership with the VC arm of the state, CT Innovations. Andy and I created Lean Launch Ventures (LLV) to provide state-funded stipends to teams in a 90 day program run out of the Westport, CT office of Canaan Partners. For LLV we used the Y-Combinator model of regular office hours plus a gathering once a week to break bread, share updates and listen to stories by guest entrepreneurs from our networks. In the fall of 2013, before we launched another LLV accelerator, the opportunity to teach entrepreneurship to MFA candidates in the nascent Design for Social Innovation program at the School of Visual Arts in NYC reeled me in. It was a fantastic 3 semester experience before Noelle and I, 50Plus empty nesters, decided to make our first major 50Plus life change last December by moving to Portland, Oregon. 

Settling into Portland this year the realization hit me that I had needed more than a geographical change with better weather, I had a deeper need. It wasn't merely the question "what's next?" It was the "what's my purpose" question, what should I devote my time to in order to make a real difference doing something I love? Having made major career changes at least every 10 years of my adult life I knew this one would require more reflection and soul searching than any of the changes in the past. At least I had a starting point, my love for entrepreneurship, both doing it and teaching others how to bring their ideas to life. It had brought me in touch with talented millennials with amazing passion and entrepreneurial drive. I gained inspiration from their energy and willingness to try new things like the nascent "sharing economy". However, as I reflected, I realized in between my formal teaching efforts, I had come in contact with a lot of people like myself, 50Plus trying to answer "what's next?" as well as their own "what's my purpose" question. With my real passion clearly being entrepreneurship, I began to investigate the question embedded in the title of this post - will entrepreneurship be a choice or a necessity for the 50Plus demographic going forward?

The Kauffman Foundation, the self-proclaimed Foundation of Entrepreneurship, publishes an annual report on the State of Entrepreneurship in the US. The 2015 edition, entitled “The Future of Entrepreneurship”, focused solely on Millennials and Baby Boomers, trying to predict what we will each be doing entrepreneurially out to 2020. Baby Boomers are a close proxy for the 50Plus demographic given that we currently span the ages 51 to 69. The report points out that at the moment entrepreneurship is enjoying a renaissance in the US driven by Millennials and Boomers together, each with our own needs. It highlights that Baby Boomers became entrepreneurs in large numbers during the IT revolution of the 1980s and 90s. Many of us, like myself, are now “serial” entrepreneurs which is why collectively we have already started a larger number of businesses during our 50s and 60s than our parents and grandparents. The report holds out hope that, for the sake of the US economy, our entrepreneurial exploits will continue. However, early evidence suggests we are beginning to extend our stays in the workforce opting not to start as many new ventures. The broad summary is that many of us have a very real concern for making ends meet and that unfortunately we may not turn to entrepreneurship as often to solve this problem going forward. 

Kauffman Foundations's Vision Statement proclaims they want to support “a society of economically independent individuals who are engaged citizens, contributing to the improvement of their communities.” However, the 2015 Kauffman report sets foot on a slippery slope when it states that a significant portion of current Boomer entrepreneurial activity has to be classified as “necessity entrepreneurship". They don't just slip but fall hard when they add, efforts to create self-employment don't qualify as real "entrepreneurship". Unfortunately Kauffman Foundation doesn’t provide a formal definition of entrepreneurship anywhere on its website. 

Babson College is the one college is the US completely devoted to teaching entrepreneurship. The Babson Vision Statement is very different: “We want to be the preeminent institution in the world for Entrepreneurial Thought and Action (their new trademarked phrase) — and known for it. We want to expand the notion of entrepreneurship to embrace and celebrate entrepreneurs of all kinds. We want to put the power of entrepreneurship, as a force for economic and social value creation, in as many hands in the world as we can.” The Babson definition of entrepreneurship really syncs with my view when they say:  “We are all entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship often is associated with startups, and venture capital, and business incubators. But, at Babson, we’ve redefined what entrepreneurship means to include all of the brilliant improvisers who continually assess how to use their strengths and resources at hand to evolve and reach their goals.” Finally, its Mission Statement is very simple: “Babson College educates entrepreneurial leaders who create great economic and social value—everywhere.”

A very important quote comes from Tina Seelig of Stanford University's preeminent entrepreneurship program. In her new book Insight Out, she highlights a long standing saying from the Stanford entrepreneurship programs, "Entrepreneurs do much more than imaginable with much less than seems possible". She punctuated this saying with her own words, "as this message communicates, entrepreneurship isn’t just about starting companies. It’s about starting anything. Entrepreneurship involves building the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to see problems as opportunities and to leverage resources to bring ideas to fruition." Let's hold that thought!

Over the course of my first year in Portland it has become crystal clear to me that with advancements in our understanding of how to live healthier lives coupled with a range of medical breakthroughs, many of us in the 50Plus demographic are very likely to outlive any financial plans we have already put in place. I continue to meet people regularly for whom this is the case, not the least of which are some of my own aged extended family members. For most, the current and likely future state of the job market and government programs for older people in this country will not be enough to avoid this outcome. We are going to have to innovate. Entrepreneurial thinking will be required for us to summon the creativity to come up with new ways to continue earning a living well past 50. The good news is that entrepreneurial thinking not a genetic trait, it is an instinct, we all have it and can learn to use it. If we are going to take care of ourselves to avoid being a burden to our kids in our final decades, we have to continue to be entrepreneurial. 50Plus entrepreneurship will be a necessity, not a choice for lots of us. 

For a definition of entrepreneurship I like Babson's but Tina Selig's is just right, "entrepreneurship isn’t just about starting companies, it’s about starting anything". Entrepreneurship isn't just about taking risks by raising money, although it can be. Applying entrepreneurial thinking to conceptualize and create new forms of self employment is going to be very important. Luckily there are new ways to monetize our experience and authority in a connected world that many in the 50Plus demographic have yet to fully appreciate. We need to take a careful look at all of our options, leaving no stone unturned.

In closing let me extend an analogy I first made in my last blog post. There are 110 million of us in the 50Plus demographic in the USA alone. We have collectively made significant impacts on the world but clearly can't afford to stop. If we were an independent nation we would be the 12th largest nation on the planet. As an independent nation we would need to take a careful look at how an economy made up of a demographic with its youngest members being 50 years old would function. We would undoubtably recognize that we have a lot of needs to fill and problems to solve, some very challenging. It wouldn't be easy but who doubts that we would succeed?

Beyond that simple thought experiment there is no reason why we should work alone. Our borders should be open, welcoming millennials, Gen X and future generations to share their best thinking and talents with those of us that are 50Plus. We will promise to continue to share ours with them. Real innovation happens best with diversity of all kinds, especially a healthy dose of age diversity, rooted in clear entrepreneurial thinking.


Diversity drives innovation .... don't forget age diversity .... #AgeDiversityMatters

    An unlikely athlete entirely changed the sport of the high jump via a simple innovation.   (AP Photo)


An unlikely athlete entirely changed the sport of the high jump via a simple innovation. (AP Photo)

My friend Roger Wu wrote an interesting and timely article this week on diversity and why it matters. Although Roger, an Asian-American, didn't believe diversity mattered growing up, founding his own startup quickly convinced him that it does matter. Leading his startup Roger came to understand clearly that diversity, broadly defined, is a key to innovation. Recognizing that innovative startups have been the engine of the US economy, creating the lion's share of jobs in recent decades, there should be no debate that innovation is critical to all of us. 

Silicon Valley, a major source of innovation, has been fielding lots of complaints of late about its utter lack of diversity. Look no further than the complete dominance of young white males on the upper rungs of the tech industry ladder. Are they the only ones with good ideas? If nothing else their dominance suggests that something is out of whack. Where are we going next, will we continue on the same path? Look at the current output of the tech community and what you see are, in Roger's words, "lots of startups attacking frivolous first world problems".  More apps for dating, other social needs satisfiable by seconds long bursts of images or words that often disappear, food ordering and a panoply of other "me too" products are being churned out by the dozens. If the goal is to actually change the world, it is time to get on the radio and tell Mission Control, "Houston we have a problem"! 

Roger goes on to provide numerous examples to demonstrate that we can improve our innovation outcomes with diversity of seeing, doing and thinking. There can be no doubt that our odds of real success degrade substantially without them. He concludes that there is hope because some early adopters in the startup world are beginning to push a range of diversity initiatives. However, the initiatives he highlights have to do with various incubator, bootcamp and accelerator programs emphasizing diversity of race, gender and sexual orientation. I don't discount any of those, they are all important. However, there is a jarring omission on this list - age diversity.

In my last blog post I began to focus on age, a theme I intend to stick with by actively covering the needs of the 50Plus demographic going forward. There are 108 million of us in the US alone. If we formed our own nation we would be the 12th most populated nation on earth. Most of us are getting ready to, or have already begun to, make major life changes. "Finding purpose" is high on the list of key attributes of what many of us want to do next which is why I entitled my first post on age Finding Purpose. My prescription for my 50Plus brethren on how to find purpose includes a strong dose of "entrepreneurial thinking". However, that same prescription can also apply to innovation. 

Let's face it, we are going to be around longer than most of us ever expected. We still have lots of current needs but will have new ones soon, some that are a direct result of the biological aging process, but others that will arise just because we have more time. Some of our needs going forward may be classified by other generations looking over our shoulders as frivolous but I know there will be a lot that can't. The elephant in the room is the fact that not all of us made the financial plans needed to make it through the extra decades we are likely to have. Alternative sources of income are going to be a critical need that many will have to address while also searching for purpose. There is no question that we are going to have to innovate.

Who is going to drive this innovation? Technology will undoubtably play a role in many solutions given the pervasiveness of the web, tools based on the web or connected to the cloud via the web. I am not going to wait for a homogeneous team of millennial males in Silicon Valley to read our minds. Don't be afraid to step up. Join me and let's collectively lead innovations, tech-based and otherwise, to solve our own problems and fill our needs. We all have an "inner entrepreneur", not all the same, but very valuable when it's unleashed. Whatever we do it's important to take to heart the lesson of Roger's article and avoid taking too narrow a view. We need to gather in small groups purposely diverse on as many dimensions as makes sense, include younger and even older generations and take advantage of everyone's experience, talent and knowledge.

#DiversityMatters   /   #AgeDiversityMatters


Finding Purpose: Good Advice at Any Age

In the past few days a repost of this Brain Pickings article from February 2012, "How to Find Your Purpose and Do What You Love", via a Facebook share, made a direct hit on me. Maria Popova has been a favorite blogger of mine since she and I first met in person on a NYC street corner across from Grand Central in 2009. I read this post in 2012 but hadn't remembered it. The direct hit was because my wife Noelle and I have been sorting through our options since moving to Portland, Oregon in December. We are both asking what's next, what should we do going forward? On the top of our list is "finding purpose", doing something we love, that will make a meaningful impact on the world. We are members of the 50Plus demographic and as we look ahead we assume our lives will span at least another 30+ years of healthy, engaged, active living. Therefore, "finding purpose", doing something we love, is critically important.  

Maria's post is so impactful because she pulled together insights on finding purpose from seven amazing authors. Paul Graham and Steve Jobs are two that I have long been a fan of. I read Paul's writing long before he became well known for Y Combinator and many of the now famous alumni of Y Combinator's acceleration process. I started following Steve Jobs' career in 1981 when I bought my Apple 2+ computer. Maria cites Steve's 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University which has gained fame from his reference to what has become known as "the passion hypothesis". Steve said, "Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it." 

It turns out that the most recent book I read this summer, So Good They Can't Ignore You - How Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport, is the first serious writing I have read that dares to question "the passion hypothesis". How can anyone question it, who wouldn't want to find and commit to work that they love and why shouldn't they? Newport starts his cross examination of the passion hypothesis by making a very important point about Jobs himself:

“If a young Steve Jobs had taken his own advice and decided to only pursue work he loved, he would probably have been one of the Los Altos Zen Center’s most popular teachers. But he didn’t follow this simple advice. Apple Computer was decidedly not born out of passion, but instead was the result of a lucky break - a “small-time” scheme that unexpectedly took off.”
— "So Good They Can't Ignore You" by Cal Newport

Derek Sivers, my original source on Newport's book, highlights Newport's broader conclusion - "the passion hypothesis convinces people that somewhere there's a magic "right" job waiting for them, and that if they find it, they'll immediately recognize that this is the work they were meant to do. The problem of course is when they fail to find this certainty, bad things follow, such as chronic job-hopping and crippling self-doubt." A very sobering conclusion.

In the end Newport's well researched message is quite simple. It starts with the admonition not to obsess over your "true calling" rather take time to acquire "rare and valuable skills" which he describes in economic terms as "career capital". He goes on to say once you begin to earn career capital it can be "invested" to gain "control over what you do and how you do it". He finally suggests that it is the wise "investment" of career capital over time that will eventually help you to identify a "life-changing mission". However, that quickly begins to sound like a very long road. It can be for millennials or others who have not had or taken the time to amass sufficient career capital. However, for our fellow travelers in the 50Plus demographic the good news is that we are collectively overflowing with experience, talent and knowledge, lots of legitimate career capital in Newport's definition. Our biggest challenge is how to use it to find "purpose", a "life changing mission" or a "true calling", pick your term, without it taking too long.

On the subject of how to find a "life changing mission" Newport references Little Bets by former venture capitalist Peter Sims who describes his work by saying that Steve Jobs, Chris Rock, Frank Gehry and the story developers at Pixar all have one thing in common. They all have taken small steps, experimental ones at that. They didn't start with a big idea trying to foresee final outcomes but made little bets about what might be a good direction, learning critical information from lots of little failures and some small, but significant, wins that allowed them to find unexpected avenues to arrive at extraordinary outcomes. In Newport's view using the "little bets" approach, supported by career capital, to find a "life changing mission" is the prescription. 

As a serial entrepreneur, I see Sim's "little bets" approach as a takeoff on Eric Ries' lean startup method which I have been teaching in startup accelerator programs in CT, in the MFA in Design for Social Innovation program at School of Visual Arts in NYC and as a mentor to a handful of entrepreneurs in recent years. My shortened version to describe this approach to creating a successful business is, make a series of guesses about what to offer potential customers, which channels to reach them through, testing if they see enough real value in what you are offering to be willing to pull out their wallets. The key is to prove your guesses one at a time, if you are wrong, change direction by making a "pivot", and try again. Once all of your original or revised hypotheses have been shown to be true - facts instead of guesses - you are onto something that will very likely succeed if customers are willing to pay enough to cover your costs leaving you with a sufficient profit. My conclusion is that success in "finding purpose" is basically an exercise in "entrepreneurial thinking" using the "little bets" or "lean startup" approach to test hypotheses along a potential path to a "life changing mission". Done right you will get there.

My advice to my 50Plus demographic is that it is imperative that we all understand and incorporate entrepreneurial thinking as we set out to find purpose this time. I can help you. I will be expanding on this advice in more detail in a series of new blog posts during August and on a new website in early September. Stay tuned.

If you are new here, welcome. If you have read my intermittent postings before, welcome back. In either case please subscribe to receive a notice when I release new blog posts in this series but more important, be the first to know about my new website when it launches.