Q&A: Setting up a business when you're 50-plus

Setting up a business in your 50s, 60s or even 70s can bring a whole set of different challenges, but you will have the benefit of life experience, too. Laurie South, ex-Chief Executive of The Prince's Initiative for Mature Enterprise, talks about the obstacles and advantages of setting up a business later in life

Is there a growing trend for people to set up businesses in their 50s?

According to research by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, 18% of adults between 50 and 64 and 13% of adults between 65 and 80 are self-employed, compared to just 11% of adults between the ages of 18 and 29. These figures are likely to increase, because there is a decreasing number of young people and more older people in the population. The demographic change in society tends to be phrased as 'we'll have lots of people over 85', but we'll also have a lot more people over 50 and they still need to earn a living.

What might motivate somebody to set up a business in their 50s?

Some olderpreneurs simply need the money and can't get a job. But quite often people have dreams they've wanted to fulfil for years, and they're more confident in their 50s. They want to feel they've achieved something, and most say they want to put something back into the community rather than make lots of money.

Are there any perceived disadvantages of setting up later in life?

There's still a societal attitude that the over-50s should put their slippers on, sit down and shut up - or perhaps be looking after the grandchildren. It can be quite hard to fight against that.

People also always say that the over-50s are risk averse. It's a very ageist comment without foundation. A 2009 report from NESTA showed that assumption is not true. The over-50s are often more conscious of their health and their mortality. However, if you work, you're likely to be healthier than somebody who doesn't.

How can such preconceptions be overcome?

If you're an olderpreneur competing with younger people, you need to become secure with that whole idea of enterprise within your own peer group, before you take it to the next stage. Some people will feel fine having to go up against much younger people, but for others it can knock their confidence.

There's a misconception that successful entrepreneurs are younger…

Most enterprise books and websites are full of very young faces, and that sends out the false message that enterprise is just for young people. That clearly isn't true.

What advantages do olderpreneurs have?

If you've spent 30 years of your life working as an employee, it can be daunting to be your own boss. But you're likely to have done a lot that you can bring to the business. I haven't met anyone over 50 who hasn't done something that makes people go 'wow!'.

People over 50 tend to know how to work with other people and know themselves, and are more ready to say no, which is so important in business.

It's also likely that an olderpreneur will have more savings to fall back on than someone who is younger, but that's not always the case. If you do, you have more to lose, too. A 22-year-old can usually go back to their parents if things go wrong. A 50-year-old rarely has that option.

Is there any funding for olderpreneurs?

Community development finance institutions (CDFIs) often provide funding for olderpreneurs. Some lenders' agreements actually state 'we do not lend to people over 50', because they think such people are getting near to the end of their time, whereas actually they've got a third of their life left in many cases.

In general, older women find it hard to ask for finance because they are from a generation where women took long career breaks to look after children and a lot of confidence gets lost in that time. My advice would be to just go and ask - it's always worth a try.

Written with expert input from Laurie South [ex-chief executive of The Prince's Initiative for Mature Enterprise which is now part of Business in the Community].

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