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There is a common misconception about today’s entrepreneurs, with the mainstream media regularly portraying them as younger recent graduates. While there are certainly many brilliant entrepreneurs in their 20s who are building disruptive and lasting companies, the truth is, the middle-aged, mid-career entrepreneur is more common than we think. Harvard Business Review found that the average age of a high-growth startup founder is 45. That’s across the board. If we look at the inventors of the true unicorns, the billion-dollar founders, the story is similar. According to the book Super Founders: What Data Reveals About Billion-Dollar Startups, the median age of founders of billion-dollar companies was 34, which means that half were older, with the oldest topping out at 68.
Directly correlated with age is the propensity for success. The same Harvard Business Review study states that older entrepreneurs “have a substantially higher success rate,” and those with three-plus years of direct industry experience were 85% more likely to experience success. On the surface, one could attribute this to more years of management experience, stronger professional networks and deeper financial pockets. But in the background, there could also be a deeper psychological story going on. Frances E. Jensen, M.D., author of The Teenage Brain, notes that the human brain doesn’t fully develop until around the age of 30, having a direct impact on our ability to process information and make mature decisions that result in lasting successful outcomes. Taken with a grain of salt, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t an opportunity for success at a very early age, but it does support the increased likelihood of a favorable outcome at a later stage in life.
As we emerge from the lockdown of Covid-19, we are redefining “work” and what it means to embark on a meaningful career. While aspiring mid-career entrepreneurs ponder new definitions of what work should be, they must consider some of the practical tools to get ready for this important life transition.
In that light, here are five keys that every entrepreneur should consider in preparation for a mid-career entrepreneurial leap.
1. Determine what entrepreneurship means for you and define your story
Entrepreneurship is an open-ended term. For some, it can mean quitting your job full throttle, investing your personal capital and diving in headfirst to build something from the ground up. For others, it could be a part-time side hustle or even a monetary investment. It is important to assess your aspirations, interests and risk tolerance and develop a plan that is aligned with you. It is also critical to ensure that your new venture reflects those skills and traits you are known for, even if you are embarking on a path that is much different from your previous career. Embracing, leveraging and highlighting your core skill set is key.
2. Gather entrepreneurial experience early
In addition to relevant industry experience comes the value of navigating a choppy entrepreneurial sea. The more startup experience you gather before jumping headfirst into a founder role, the smoother the transition will be. Early-stage experience doesn’t have to carry a founder title, necessarily — it can be gained by working in a more junior role or advisory capacity at an early-stage venture or developing a new product offering/business unit of a mature company.
3. Build your platform
Think about the publicity and social mediums with which you plan to be engaged. They could be social networks, leadership organizations or industry groups. For some entering middle-to-late stages of their careers, their entire network may have been built around the large corporations they worked for, so this is an opportunity to think about the strategic forums and platforms you want to engage with that align with your target audience/consumer and your overall interests.
4. Plan ahead financially
While we may be enamored by the dream of a house wallpapered with stock options from a wildly successful overnight initial public offering, the truth is 90% of startups fail. And for those that don’t, it can take years to become profitable. For founders, this financial conundrum may not only affect their professional life but also have a very personal impact. It is therefore important to paint a realistic picture of success scenarios and align financial plans with each.
5. Address the worst-case scenario without letting your confidence waver
Success is not guaranteed. But our natural inclination can be to catastrophize — think of the very worst-case scenario and play it out as real. In his book 10% Happier, Dan Harris, author and co-anchor of ABC’s Nightline, states that he was always feeling one step away from failure — in his mind, at any moment, he could end up “in a flophouse in Duluth.” The thought of “what if” can be much more visceral than “what next” if not addressed. So, if you were to completely fail, what would you do? Who would be your first call? How would you get back up on your feet? How much time could you give yourself to do so? At the same time, the path of an entrepreneur is never a straight one, and the only guarantee is that there will be many unforeseen discoveries along the way. It’s imperative to remember your track record of success, clearly defining who you are and what your years of unique experience bring to the table. Reminding yourself of that will help you connect the dots along the way and increase your chance of succeeding.
Harvest season has come for the mid-career entrepreneurs; Covid-19 appears to be easing, the world is reopening and work as we know it is being completely redefined. There is an incredible opportunity for those with years of unique wisdom to bring newness to the table, to improve environments that they are all too familiar with, and to invent solutions to the inefficiencies they have come to know. The door is wide open for financial institutions to wisely invest in these entrepreneurs. The tailwinds are strong, and the time is now.
But it never hurts to look before we leap.