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.