Have the supercharged successes of young, tech-oriented, self-made billionaires colored your view of innovators and entrepreneurs? Many of us assume the brightest ideas come from the hoodie set, and it’s true that many great products and services hatch from their fresh minds. But the group that boasts the most entrepreneurial activity these days is long on life experience too.
“Encore career” entrepreneurs, aged 55-64, are now the “driving force” of innovation in the U.S., says the Small Business Administration. This group is especially suited to the start-up lifestyle notes Gallup, because it allows independence, the freedom to pursue personal interests and the potential to increase income in the process. Many midlife entrepreneurs are without the financial burdens of raising young families, affording them the freedom to chase their dreams.
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That’s not to say that the road to success isn’t paved with challenges. It takes more than a light bulb moment to find success as an entrepreneur. For tips on building a solid innovation foundation, Life Reimagined caught up with David Pensak, Ph.D., an entrepreneur with over 40 patents to his name, including the first commercially successful Internet firewall (Raptor Systems) and a travel mug lid that improves the taste of your morning brew (Vaporiety). Pensak companies have hit the Kauffman Foundation’s list of 50 most innovative startups three times.
There are more and more cases where experienced Americans know things that young entrepreneurs do not. Innovators over 50 are essential to giving the U.S. a competitive edge.
Pensak, who’s 68 and author of Innovation for Underdogs: How To Make the Leap From What If To What Now, says seasoned professionals make better innovators because of their experience, intuition and ability to re-purpose and re-use things around them. "There are more and more cases where experienced Americans know things that young entrepreneurs do not. Innovators over 50 are essential to giving the U.S. a competitive edge."
Innovation is about having good ideas, but you also need the right people and tools. "Older innovators need access—access to labs, libraries, equipment and professional resources. All these elements are out there; we just need to do a better job connecting people to resources." Here are the building blocks Pensak believes are essential to success:
1. Competent Business and Legal Advisors Big ideas are a great start, but you need a solid business plan to succeed. Contact your local Small Business Administration (SBA) branch or your local economic development office for free advice on everything from getting insurance to finding partners or locating opportunities. For legal advice be careful. Free legal clinics are tempting, but you are likely to be assigned to a law student who doesn't know his/her job well enough. Patent law is especially difficult; you need experience, not just education, to prevent disaster. Since Pensak’s CateringStone was cited by the Food Network as one of the hottest new products for 2016, potential competitors are springing up, requiring cease and desist letters to anyone who infringes on his patents.
Pensak’s Prescription: Retain a retired lawyer willing to work for a lower fee.
2. Sufficient Resources You need perspective (trends in your field, what’s been done before, successes and failures) to launch your new venture. Unlimited access to electronic journals, databases, studies and reports are important, but you’re not likely to find such resources in a suburban library. Try to affiliate with a major university or institution to get the information you need.
Pensak’s Prescription: He relies on the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Delaware. Osher operates programs on 119 campuses nationwide for people age 50 or older.
3. The Right Facilities and Equipment After 30 years as a researcher at E.I. du Pont de Nemours, what Pensak misses most is access to their labs. This could be the single biggest obstacle facing entrepreneurs, whether they need a science lab, professional kitchen or dedicated art space. Innovation incubation centers are an increasingly popular option; you can find one via the International Business Innovation Association. But less formal options for facilities are also possible.
Pensak’s Prescription: He works from home often, and relies on friends from years of relationship building to help him find obscure equipment and resources.
4. Solid Peer Group Feedback is essential for your product and your plan—from how to test your invention to developing a business development strategy or finding funding or a business partner. Connect with peers at incubator centers or local entrepreneur forums. Save bigger forums for when you are farther down the road and closer to launch.
Pensak’s Prescription: If you host your own gatherings, as he does, keep them casual and small (say, a half dozen people), so input is manageable.
5. Outside Activities “Get out of the house!” Pensak implores. A change of scenery is Important for energizing, stimulating and changing perspective. Consider getting involved with relevant programs in your community.
Pensak’s Prescription: He finds mentoring younger innovators not only helps them, but gives him a fresh outlook for his own work.
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