50Plus jobs: micro-entrepreneurs create their own - why wait for "economic development"

$100 Startup Japan Manga Pic.png


"No money, no skill, just a tiny bit of an idea and its good for salarymen, office ladies, students, and seniors."

The book in the picture is the¥10,000 Startup, a 2015 Manga-style, Japanese language translation and adaptation of a very successful book published in English in 2012 by Chris Guillebeau, a fellow Portland resident, best-selling author and life-long micro-entrepreneur. The translation of the banner on the cover, "no money, no skill, just a tiny bit of an idea and it’s good for salarymen, office ladies, students, and seniors", immediately caught my eye. Those words could be the first sentence of my call to arms to anyone in the 50Plus demographic worried about a potential coming shortfall of their financial plan resulting from our unexpected good fortune of living longer than expected.

In a recent blog post, I made reference to current data from BlackRock, the largest asset manager in the world, to estimate the size of the problem facing the 50Plus demographic. The answer: the average Baby Boomer (75 million of the 110 million 50Plus demographic) in the US is likely to fall $36,350 per year short of their own estimate of a $45,500 annual income goal given that they currently have only $136,200 in retirement assets shown in Figure 2. The question stands, can this hurdle be cleared?


Figure 2: from  BlackRock Global Investor Pulse Survey  July/August 2015

Figure 2: from BlackRock Global Investor Pulse Survey July/August 2015

Clearing a $36,350 annual hurdle is achievable for an individual with experience, knowledge, talent and a willingness to work—the key traits of the average 50Plus individual. Chris’ original, English-language version of his book entitled The $100 Startup used the subtitle, "Reinvent the Way You Make a Living, Do What You Love, and Create a New Future", a perfect phrase to complete my call to arms to my 50Plus brethren. Chris was presenting the case for "micro-business" creation based on "micro-entrepreneurship". My only explicit additive would be a simple catalyst: understanding of the power of the Internet to reach almost any other human being on the planet with an offer. That is the basis of success for many "micro-entrepreneurs " today. 

In December 2013, I wrote a blog post entitled “Goal: Job Creation - Scalable Startups vs Micro-Entrepreneur Training.” The $100 Startup was one of three books I referenced. The primary target for the post was my class of millennial students at the School of Visual Arts in the MFA in Design for Social Innovation program. I was using the $100 Startup and Be a Free Range Human - Escape the 9 to 5, Create the Life You Love and Still Pay the Bills, by Marianne Cantwell, to explain the difference between entrepreneurial ventures aimed at launching "scalable" startups, requiring significant financial investment, contrasting them with the "micro-business" model needing, as the Manga translation says, "no money, no skill, just a tiny bit of an idea". Clearly, the first two books carried the micro-entrepreneurship message. The third book I cited was The Startup Owner's Manual by my friend Bob Dorf and his partner Steve Blank which emphasized the “lean” approach to building scalable startups.

A secondary target for the original blog post was government economic development officials. Besides teaching at SVA, I was acting as a consultant to the State of Connecticut’s Department of Economic and Community Development on the creation of a more entrepreneur friendly “innovation ecosystem” in the state. The marching orders of these folks in CT, and elsewhere, is to stimulate the creation of, or the import of, jobs, jobs and more jobs, preferably in fast growing industries. In my experience, when the question of how to do this comes up, the answer reflects economic developer's fondest dream, “we need a Facebook, a Google, an Apple, another Priceline (a CT company), some true high growth companies in this geography. We only need one or two to solve a lot of our job problems”. When pressed as to what they really wanted, the answer in CT was often "just take me to the NY Tech Meetup (where I was active in the Leadership Circle), introduce me to some of your friends and help me steal a few young scalable growth companies".

Lots of public money gets spent trying to seed or create the “conditions” for high growth companies based on the fantasy: they will create the lion's share of the missing jobs. I was challenging this thinking in my 2013 blog post by asking, "why not experiment with some portion of economic development funds by training people to create their own jobs by building micro-businesses"? I pointed out that entrepreneurship is not a genetic trait, it can be learned. Case studies like those in Chris' $100 Startup, Marianne's Be a Free Range Human or about friends of mine who have done it are the best way to teach it. The goal of my challenge: track how many individuals can create their own “jobs” as micro-entrepreneurs by leveraging their existing knowledge, skills and talents mostly via an effective use of the Internet. 50Plus individuals are the perfect test cases for this experiment today. I strongly believe that the “job market,” jobs created by others, especially by "high growth" companies, are not going to be the safety net for the 50Plus demographic. We must experiment. Let's explore the real power of micro-entrepreneurship to understand how it "scales".

This series of posts on the 50Plus demographic has been leading up to the launch of a new website, which I am almost ready to reveal. Historically, I built scalable startups but never a true micro-business. My mission is to build a micro-business in full view, demonstrating to the 50Plus demographic how to leverage one's knowledge, talent and experience, in my case as a serial entrepreneur, mentor and teacher. My goal is to help as many members of the 50Plus demographic as I can create their own jobs. I am not without my own role models. I have been following some carefully over time. They happen to be millennials and young Gen X'ers, folks like Chris Guillebeau, Pat Flynn, Marianne Cantwell and others who took the plunge and figured this out at different points in the last decade and are still doing extremely well. I will hopefully introduce you to some of them along the way. Their stories are amazing. Ours can be too!

If you haven’t done so already, subscribe to my e-mail list to receive notices of my remaining posts in the 50Plus series on this website and the announcement of my new website. I look forward to serving you and getting to know you in the process. Let's do this together!

Serendipity: A Perfect Ingredient to help Solve the Challenges Facing the 50Plus Demographic

   A "serendipitous" four peak day on Jan 10, 2016 near Portland, Oregon on a 2 hour drive never more than 45 miles from my front door all taken from Oregon vistas. Clockwise: Mt. Saint Helens, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood.


A "serendipitous" four peak day on Jan 10, 2016 near Portland, Oregon on a 2 hour drive never more than 45 miles from my front door all taken from Oregon vistas. Clockwise: Mt. Saint Helens, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood.

Serendipity was the subject of my first two blog posts in September and October 2013. Both posts were different takes on how we can create our own serendipity. I have been a long time believer in serendipity since I can point to a fair amount of it in my own life. I have had enough of it that I strongly believe there are a number of different ways you can increase your odds of experiencing it. I highly recommend conferences and other well chosen gatherings as starting points since they have been a primary source of serendipitous interactions with people, organizations and ideas that have changed my life. In most cases I likely would not have encountered them in any other way.

In 2015, as my focus for this blog shifted from millennials to the needs of the 50Plus demographic, I hadn't yet thought to touch on serendipity again. It was an article in the NY Times the week before last by Pagan Kennedy entitled Cultivating the Art of Serendipity that put it back on my radar screen. Her subtitle makes a point that caught my eye right away, "Innovation isn't all hard work or dumb luck: It's about paying attention". Kennedy’s timing was itself serendipitous because I quickly realized that I had overlooked that serendipity can be a key ingredient in helping the 50Plus demographic to face its major financial challenges in the coming years.

My message to the 110 million strong 50Plus demographic is this: we have to begin to embrace entrepreneurship to generate the additional income needed to overcome the structural problem of outliving our financial plans. In short, for many, “entrepreneurship will be a necessity, not a choice”. Just to be clear, when I use the term entrepreneurship I start with entrepreneurial thinking. Learning to think like an entrepreneur isn’t based on genetics, it is not a trait that you either inherited or you didn’t. It is a learned behavior accessible to all of us. I am not suggesting it is an easy learning curve, but I can speak from experience as a serial entrepreneur, as well as from teaching others, it can be done.

Tina Seelig, a leader of Stanford University's preeminent entrepreneurship program, provided a definition of entrepreneurship in her book Insight Out. In her words, “entrepreneurship involves building the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to see problems as opportunities and to leverage resources to bring ideas to fruition.” In her book, Seelig presents what she has dubbed the four part Invention Cycle. This cycle is  rooted in using curiosity to spur your imagination, which then seeds creativity to allow one to visualize innovations, which finally opens the door to the act of entrepreneurship to bring them to fruition. Seelig doesn’t mention serendipity. However, reflecting on the first part of Pagan Kennedy’s subtitle, “Innovation isn't all hard work or dumb luck”, I would suggest that "cultivated serendipity" is “smart luck”, which I assume is why Kennedy describes it as being, “about paying attention”. I would hold that smart luck based on paying attention is a perfect additive to the Invention Cycle. My gut says Seelig could agree with that.

The 50Plus demographic is loaded with experience, knowledge and well honed skills. Cultivating “smart luck” by paying attention with the right attitude seems like what the doctor ordered to get us on track to solving our own problems. If any demographic can do it, we can.

Having defined the scale of the problem in my last post, coming up with another key ingredient here, in the next few posts in this series I will explain my thoughts on how this all fits together and most importantly why I am confident that if we stay focused we can succeed in controlling our own destinies. It is not too late! I will share more details of my own experiences and those of others, including stories of folks who have cultivated serendipity in various ways to succeed as entrepreneurs. My focus is going to be heavily skewed towards micro-entrepreneurship, starting small to create our own jobs without taking huge financial risks. This is in contrast to trying to fulfill the dreams of economic development officials looking for the next Facebook, Google, Apple or sharing economy startup to create massive numbers of new jobs in their geography. I will emphasize that working smart in this day and age means acknowledging the power the Internet, not ignoring it. A few more posts will take us to the launch of my offering to the 50Plus community based on a new website later this month or in early February. I am excited to share it with you!

Stay tuned a little longer…..in the meantime please continue to comment here or e-mail me at weg3@me.com.




50Plus Jobs - facing reality, solving our own problems as entrepreneurs

Let me begin this post by wishing everyone a very Happy New Year. Noelle and I are starting our second year here in Portland, Oregon. 2016 promises to be an important year for us, hopefully for you as well.

Peak of Mt Hood summer 2015

Peak of Mt Hood summer 2015

During this past year, after a long period of teaching millennials how to develop, refine, and implement new business ideas, I began to shift the focus of this blog away from the needs of millennials to take time to build a deeper understanding of the needs of the 50Plus demographic. My last post of 2015 concluded that entrepreneurship is not going to be a choice, rather a necessity, going forward for many in the 50Plus cohort. We are a unique and sizable group numbering over 110 million in the US alone. Thanks to advancements in medical science and an improved understanding of healthy living, we are going to live longer than any of us could have ever imagined during our early working years. That’s the good news! The bad news is the state of our collective finances. A recent report from BlackRock, the largest manager of retirement assets in the US, provides data on our likely future financial position.  These data were taken from the results of a survey of over 4,000 Americans, collected as part of a larger annual global study. Their conclusion is this: 71% of Baby Boomers, the 52-70 year old slice of 50Plus demographic by yearend 2016, are worried about their ability to afford retirement. On average we expect $45,500 a year in retirement income but only have assets of $136,200 set aside today.These assets are likely to produce, at best, only $9,129 per year. That is a huge $37,000 per year shortfall!  Can that gap be closed? My gut says that the "job market" cannot and will not be able to help us with the significant boost we will need in order to achieve that outcome! At best a lucky few will close the “retirement financing gap” through a job created by someone else.

Two articles this past week focused on the state of the job market for the 50Plus demographic, confirming that the employment outlook for 50Plus individuals is weak in spite of a six plus year economic recovery. The first report came from Patricia Cohen, in the NY Times, entitled Over 50, Female and Jobless Even as Others Return to Work. Patricia tells the personal stories of a number of 50Plus women struggling in the current job market. She goes on to cite a US Federal Reserve report and highlights data on 50Plus women trying to return to the workforce after significant time out of it. Today 50% of the women in the 55 to 65 age bracket are classified as “long-term unemployed”, which is double the figure from 2006 for the same age group for women. The situation is better for 50Plus men, but only by a slim margin.

The second article is One Laid-Off Boomer’s Job Hunt: Too Old For This?  by Kevin Kusinitz, a talented 50Plus writer on the NPR website next avenue. Kevin chronicles his own experiences in the past three years looking for jobs. He focuses specifically on the absurdity of in-person interviews, demonstrating the many ways in which the deck is stacked against 50Plus applicants. The bottom line? He hasn’t had any luck. Granted he represents a lone data point, but if you want more anecdotal evidence just read the 1,400 combined comments from both his and Cohen's articles left by 50Plus individuals with painfully similar experiences.

It is clear to me that we can’t hold our breath waiting for others to create enough jobs to put all the 50Plus individuals who want to close a “retirement financing gap,” or who just want a cushion of some extra cash, back to work. This brings me back to my main message in my last few blog posts of 2015. The only shot many of us have is to begin to think entrepreneurially and ask how can we solve this for ourselves. The government and corporate America certainly aren’t going to save us.

I will be launching a new website in January or early February to help fellow 50Plus individuals recognize their inner entrepreneur and to understand ways in which we can leverage our years of experience, deep knowledge and talents to generate new income for ourselves without risking the capital that we do have. All it will take is our time and a willingness to try. We can do it!

Stay tuned.....

All comments are welcome. If you would rather comment privately, e-mail me at weg3@mac.com. Looking forward to hearing any thoughts / suggestions on where I am going with this. 

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.