Senior Startups

With retirement age becoming an all but non-existent concept, we meet the over 50s, 60s and 70s launching startups with their savings.

Words Francisco Serrano
Illustration Miguel Montaner

It’s hard to get noticed when you enter Manuel Soares Alves’ work space, an old corral now surrounded by urban sprawl in Algés de Cima, in the suburbs of Lisbon, Portugal. Most of the space in the rundown edifice is occupied by planks and old furniture, wood chips covering the old cobblestone floor. A few chairs are waiting to be fixed and a freshly varnished dollhouse sits atop a table. Manuel is working in the corner, and when he finally sees me, he smiles and waves, asking me to wait. He opens a box and takes out his hearing aid, which he carefully places behind his right ear. Now he is ready to talk.

Born in 1928 in Valença do Douro, in northern Portugal, Manuel has been a carpenter since he was 16 and has worked at this same spot since the early 1980s. At the age of 87 he still drives here every morning, unless it’s excessively cold. Although he no longer commits to heavy carpentry work, he continues to labour on smaller objects, like the Moroccan box he’s now fixing up. “I like coming here because of the routine. It keeps me alive,” he says. “My doctor says that I am still strong and this is much better than just staying at home.” For his age he thinks he’s a healthy man — “I only take two pills a day” — and as long as his health remains he’ll continue to work every day.

“Rising life expectancy rates over past decades have scrambled our ideas of retirement, old age and productive life.”

Manuel is at once a rare example of longevity and part of a larger paradigm shift. Rising life expectancy has scrambled our ideas of retirement, old age and productive life. Of course the improvements have reflected differently on developed and developing nations. In Afghanistan, for example, life expectancy at birth for both sexes has risen from 49 years in 1990 to 61 by 2013, while the same period saw the average Argentinean improve the duration of his life from 73 to 76 years. Several European countries now boast life expectancy rates of over 80, but even within developed nations, life expectancy is clearly linked to economic and social advancement. In France, people were expected to reach 82 in 2013, up from 78 in 1990. Over the same period, Japanese saw their life expectancy at birth grow from 79 to 84.

Despite these differences, more and more people around the world are living longer, and in many cases shun traditional plans of quiet retirement. Underway is a complete transformation of the traditional conceptions of ageing and work. As a 2013 report by Nesta points out, “Old age tends to be de ned by what it is not. Retirement is not working. Ageing is seen as decline and dependence. Yet older people are more likely to set up successful new businesses, provide unpaid care for their peers, to be happier and better off than their younger counterparts.” Growing opportunities for self-employment are opening the door for a new breed of self-starters and entrepreneurs are turning retirement age into a second working life.

Source: CIA World Factbook 2012

Louise Chunn is 59, and after 30 years as a successful magazine editor, set up her own business in 2014. Welldoing.org is a platform that matches therapists and counsellors with people seeking help, and as the project grows, Louise has been able to get a new perspective on work and life. “This was the first business I built from scratch,” says Chunn. “It has changed my outlook on creating new businesses. I hadn’t really appreciated that when it’s something that’s yours you feel very differently about working. You don’t feel resentful, you feel proud. You really do feel passionate because it is your investment.”

Parallel to advancements in healthcare, the rise of technology and the internet has lowered the barriers to starting a company and testing new products in a short period of time. This has come in handy not only for 20-somethings straight out of college, but to experienced professionals in their 50s and 60s who have either been left behind by the marketplace or simply decided to do something different. The same report by Nesta found that 1 in 5 entrepreneurs over 50 decided to open their businesses as a way to work past their official retirement ages.

This shift is impacting the market as well as innovation. According to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, new high-tech firms are more likely to be established by someone over 50 years of age than someone below 25. This might seem improbable in an age of startups established by teens and sold for millions in a matter of months, but although we tend to think of the millennial generation as the sole driver for innovation and entrepreneurship, a growing number of baby boomers are showing they have a role to play in the current entrepreneurship drive.

“Technology is developed to solve day-to-day problems,” says Sarah Drinkwater, head of Google’s Campus London, “but it is very hard for a 35-year old to imagine what it’s like to be dealing with the problems of a 75 year old. So overall it’s better that new technology is increasingly created by people who know what their specific problems are. Older founders are very keen to tackle problems they understand.”

The overall environment for older entrepreneurs is also improving. Not only are think tanks and research papers focusing on what this new wave of older business founders can bring to the marketplace, but an increasing number of programmes and support tools cater to older entrepreneurs. In mid-2015, for example, Google launched its Founders over 50 pilot programme, a support network for older entrepreneurs aiming to launch their own businesses. Based in Google’s Campus London, the programme mentored nine entrepreneurs over a six-week period, enabling them to start-up more efficiently.

Source: Nesta (Note: applies to low growth businesses only)

Similarly the US Small Business Administration in partnership with the AARP offers free mentoring events for older entrepreneurs across the United States, as well as online support, and has helped over 300,000 entrepreneurs over 50 since 2012. A growing number of entrepreneurship centres and universities across the world also offer support specifically geared towards baby boomers aiming to establish their own businesses.

Although they sometimes lack fluidity in manoeuvring technology and internet-based tools, these older entrepreneurs bring numerous skills to the table. Drinkwater believes that older founders offer not only considerable work experience, but also contacts in their previous areas of employment and a pragmatic approach to solving operational and business problems. “Older founders are very comfortable to hold up their hands and say, ‘I need help with this, or I need help with that,’” she says, “while younger founders are tempted to try to learn everything themselves. An older entrepreneur is more likely to go, ‘I’m terrible at marketing, I’ll get someone to do it for me.’”

“Starting businesses later in life means older founders tend to have easier access to capital for their new ventures.”

Far from being a way to secure a comfortable living after a full working life, retirement savings are now a common way for entrepreneurs in their 50s and 60s to finance fresh ideas.

Suzanne Noble, 54, launched Frugl in 2014, a website and mobile app that allows users to fund affordable things to do in London. It was partly financed through the sale of a home. “I was working in PR, I had a couple of kids, so I waited for them to go out to university and I sold my house. I had a bit of money so that gave me the freedom to set out and work on the project,” she says.

Without a home to sell, securing investment to support the expansion of a new businesses can be tough. According to Noble, a bias towards older entrepreneurs hampers their ability to get investors on board. “Generally it is very hard to raise money as an older business person. Most investors come from a financial background and they tend to react more positively to people that are like them. In many cases it is just an unconscious bias,” says Noble, who has nevertheless been able to raise money from an investment syndicate.

Besides showing that longevity is pushing the market to move faster than societal conceptions, age bias is a paradox. According to Nesta, 70% of startup businesses established by people 50 or over last more than three years, compared to 28% of firms founded by under 50s. What this ongoing wave of elderly entrepreneurship demonstrates is that far from needing to substitute one generation with another, a combination of different generations can have a positive impact on business and innovation.

Whether a tech-savvy graduate, an experienced professional switching careers or a craftsman perfecting your talents over a lifetime, chances are you’ll be working long past current retirement age. As far as Manuel the carpenter is concerned, this trend bodes well for our longevity: “The reason I’m still healthy enough to work is because I keep working.”

What now?

Take action! Get advice and investment from Senior Enterprise

Over 50 and thinking of starting a business? This EU funded scheme could be a valuable source of advice and investment. Senior Enterprise also works to overturn negative social attitudes about the over-50s.

To explore the subject of ageing we teamed up with The Powerful Now, an IDEO + SYPartners initiative poised to creatively redefine ageing as a path of continual growth instead of decline. Together we wanted to explore the ways in which health, money, work and communities will exist in our future, and initiate discussions to find radical new solutions.

This article is taken from Weapons of Reason’s third issue: The New Old. Weapons of Reason is a publishing project to understand and articulate the global challenges shaping our world by Human After All design agency.

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Issue three of Weapons of Reason explores a global challenge: Ageing. Weapons of Reason is a publishing project by Human After All design agency in London.

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Weapons of Reason

Weapons of Reason

A publishing project by @HumanAfterAllStudio to understand & articulate the global challenges shaping our world. Find out more weaponsofreason.com

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