Advice for Ageless Startups, Even in a Pandemic
How to bootstrap a new business in midlife or in retirement
Rick Terrien, a Pittsburgh serial entrepreneur and author of the new book Ageless Startup, is a firm believer that you’re never too old to launch a business. In fact, he thinks becoming an entrepreneur — either full-time or part-time — in your 50s or 60s may be the best time of life to do it. Yes, even in a pandemic.
Based on Terrien’s experience and success, I think he’s worth listening to if you’re considering launching a business in midlife. I recently spoke with him for his tips; highlights of our interview are below.
But first, a little about Terrien.
He started out running his family business, Banner Graphics, for 25 years. Then he opened and served as president of Universal Separators, an industrial recycling business that won a Fast Company magazine Fast 50 Award. Next, he headed up a management consulting and software company to help startups and was executive director of a Wisconsin county economic development corporation. In 2013, Terrien started Innovation Kitchens, a business development and commercial food processing services firm. In 2015, he was named an Encore.org Purpose Prize Fellow. These days, he’s leading Artisan Food Networks, which he founded, and is business development director of Food21, which he also helped launch.
Yes, you can start a business at any age. That’s the subtitle of the book. Making a difference is ageless.
A Chat With the 'Ageless Startups' Author
Next Avenue: What do you mean by ‘ageless startup?’
Rick Terrien: It’s generally meant as entrepreneurship for people in the second half of life. I think if you’re forty years old, you should be thinking about it, at forty-five you should be putting action steps in place and at fifty you should be starting the business.
The point is: Yes, you can start a business at any age. That’s the subtitle of the book. Making a difference is ageless.
Why are you so keen on the idea of starting a business in midlife or later?
Almost all the notable successes I’ve had in business happened after I was forty-five. Many people my age love the industries they’ve worked in and their communities and are looking for ways to apply their skill sets to those markets and communities. I wanted to tell people: ‘Not only can you, but you should.’
The hardest part, I found, is that people don’t give themselves permission to explore entrepreneurship. They think it’s a game for twenty year olds and billionaires. It’s just the opposite.
I wanted to give people permission to do this kind of work and tell them how to plan for it.
Most startup how-to books are about getting investors and making business plans. I’m of a different mindset. I think there’s great value in going slow and carefully avoiding risk. That’s what’s more appropriate for people in the second half of life.
The Coronavirus Pandemic and Startups
Why do you think interest in midlife entrepreneurship will increase? Even now in a pandemic?
I don’t think there’s any doubt that we’re in the middle of another seismic, existential shift in the economy… It’s, of course, a very dangerous time. No question about that. But many industries and business types are more vulnerable than others.
The ability to start something small — a one- or two-person business — it’s not hard. It’s just new.
You recommend starting a B2B business, whose customers are other businesses, rather than a B2C business targeting consumers. Why?
I feel that way a hundred and ten percent now. Consumers will be under their desks for a number of months, just hiding. Selling them anything will be difficult. But even more than that, consumers are fickle.
With B2B on the other hand, businesses and organizations, nonprofits and governments have a built in need to improve all the time. And going forward they’re going to have to be nimbler and faster and more innovative.
They will take your call if you offer a solution to their problem. And if you can prove your solution gets them out of one problem, they will stick with you.
You also talk about joining the new artisan economy. What do you mean?
I think of the artistan economy as smaller scale, entrepreneurship, giving people a chance to find more resilience and opportunity in their lives. It’s been growing and growing over our lifetimes, and I think now has chance to grow even more exponentially.
We’re largely bypassing the day and age of large centralized business structures.
Jams and jellies have had the artisan label as a product label, but there is also the artisan service level where individuals with deep knowledge, networks and know-how can come in with customized solutions for B2B.
People think it’s scary to start a business. In my opinion, it’s much scarier not to start your own business.
Rather than hiring a big consulting firm like McKinsey, you hire someone from next town over who is specific to your issues and problems.
Bootstrapping to Launch in Midlife
And you’re a fan of using the bootstrap system when starting a business in midlife. Can you tell me about that?
With a small amount of money and a few months to get organized, bootstrapping is a hell of a skillset.
I’m bringing small food companies to life and telling them: You’ll get to a certain revenue level and then big companies will swoop in and buy you.
Can someone do bootstrapping as one person from home?
That’s even easier. Start something part-time in your house. That’s perfectly wonderful. Then, you can get it up and running and if you choose to pass it on one day, you can bring someone in.
How should someone get started?
Start small and make a smooth transition to working for yourself. Minimize your risks. Protect your cash at all costs. And then be ready for when we come out of this [the pandemic].
Any final thoughts?
People think it’s scary to start a business. In my opinion, it’s much scarier not to start your own business. If you give your life to forces outside your control, you’re asking for trouble.
It’s not a picnic. I don’t want to be Pollyanna about it. But now's the time to do it.