The lines between work and retirement have never been so blurred, and these days, age and experience are no barrier to launching a new business – in fact, quite the opposite. David Mellor, 63, explains…
Contrary to previous viewpoints, these days, age and experience is becoming more widely recognized as an advantage when starting a new enterprise. I started my first business at the age of 47 and have spent the last 15 years helping would-be entrepreneurs to start theirs.
The UK is experiencing a boom in self-employment with more and more of us choosing to be our own boss. While the mainstream US media focuses on stories about tech entrepreneurs founding million dollar startups before 25, in the UK, most self-employed workers have more years and experience under their belts. According to the Office of National Statistics, the average age of the self-employed worker is rising – currently it’s 41.
“Older entrepreneurs have a massive advantage over their younger, more energetic colleagues”
There are plenty of reasons for the rise in self-employment among older people; whether it’s a decision to seek a better work-life balance, staying busy during retirement, being made redundant, or even achieving a long-held dream. But when it comes to starting a business, older entrepreneurs have a massive advantage over their younger, more energetic colleagues.
We have the benefit of maturity and wisdom. We’ve already figured out who we are and have our own personal code of conduct. We’ve gained years of experience in how to handle tricky situations and how to behave in an ethical way. And we can integrate this into our businesses right from the start.
My focus is working with aspiring entrepreneurs – helping them make the leap from employee to businessperson. Here are my tips for older workers thinking of entering self-employment for the first time.
1) Look in the mirror
Workers who are leaving big institutions – public, private or voluntary – are often institutionalised. Often, they’ve been sheltered and protected from the full range of commercial realities. Most are experts in their own particular field, but they don’t yet have the broad skillset needed to run their own business.
Your first step should be to create an inventory of your skills, behaviors, strengths and weaknesses. For example, if you’re naturally an introvert, throwing yourself into networking will be a baptism of fire. Armed with this self-knowledge, you can identify where you’ll need extra help.
2) Don’t go it alone
If you’ve spent your career employed in large organisations, starting your own business will be a seismic change. If you are starting up following redundancy, this will be an emotionally charged time. Depending on the circumstances, you could be feeling anything from fear and depression to elation. Not the ideal frames of mind for making commercial decisions.
While your partner or spouse can offer emotional support, they may not be best placed to advise you on business matters. A mentor can help you combat the loneliness of transitioning from a big organisation to a one-person startup. They will act as a sounding board and help you ascertain whether your business idea has legs.
3) Surround yourself with quality
Think ‘quality first’ when appointing anyone to work on or in your business, be it as employee or external service provider. Going for a cheap fix could prove to be your Achilles Heel. I recently surveyed attendees at one of my seminars, posing the question: “What’s the biggest business lesson you’ve learned?” One participant answered: “Don’t source your web designer by just searching on Google.”
4) Show some humility
If you’re starting afresh in an entirely new work direction, do your homework first. Read the industry press and above all, make sure you talk to plenty of people working within the new sector. Be aware of the pitfalls before you even start, so that you launch with ‘eyes wide open’ as opposed to ‘eyes wide shut’.
I once met a high flyer who wanted to open a guest house in Cornwall after leaving his current position. His experience of this particular sector of the hospitality industry was “I stayed in a guest house once.” I’ve haven’t a clue whether his new venture was a success but a total lack of experience in your newly chosen field isn’t generally the best foot forward!
5) Polish your personal brand
Having your own personal brand is a must have in today’s fast-moving, hyper-connected world. Before you even start posting on LinkedIn and Twitter, make sure you’re crystal clear on three things: who you are, what you do and what you stand for. Then make sure all your posts reflect this.
Failure to do this can create contradictory messages which will confuse potential customers. Confused customers take their business elsewhere.
6) Know your numbers
Invest time in making sure you completely understand the financial drivers of your business. Do you understand how to calculate margins and break even or how to assess your liquidity?
7) Make your business plan short and to the point
A long, complex business plan is destined only to gather dust on your bookshelf. While it’s important to outline where you’re going and how you’re going to get there, simplicity is key.
I recommend writing a simple plan covering four elements – objectives, goals, strategies and measures. Here’s a very simple example for a business selling t-shirts to football fans:
Objective: to be the number one supplier of t-shirts to football clubs.
Goal: to be exceeding £1 million turnover within 3 years.
Strategy: to build trusted relationships with official fan clubs of football teams.
Measures: month-on-month growth of fan clubs signed up and shirts sold.
Measures like this will help you to determine if the business is moving in the right direction.
8) Nurture your network
People buy from people before they buy from a brand. Face-to-face networking, combined with an online presence, can be a powerful source of business leads.
You can’t rush networking. Build your relationships first so people are comfortable in your presence. Only after that will fellow networkers be comfortable seeking your help, or recommending you to others. Go too fast or salesy, and you could create a push-back effect.
(If you remember one thing about networking, it’s this: be interested, not interesting. Be curious about what people do and they will respond. And always let them speak first.)
9) You have two ears, one mouth
Some of the quietest people I know are actually the ones who are the best at asking the right questions, which will lead eventually to a sale or a referral. It’s important to work on your communication skills, but the number one skill that people need to work on is usually how to listen.
10) You’re never too old to stop learning
Even old(er) dogs love learning new tricks! Don’t stop investing in your personal development. I still pay to go on training events at the age of 63. Your brain wants to keep learning – keep it active!
David Mellor has spent 15 years helping new business owners. His goal in 2017 is to grow a free networking group for older entrepreneurs. David has written three books on transitioning from employee to entrepreneur: From Crew to Captain: From Crew to Captain: Commander of the Fleet and From Crew to Captain: A Privateer’s Tale.