How old is too old for an entrepreneur?
By Pedro De Abreu – Aug 06, 2013
In today’s guest blog Pedro de Abreu speaks to a mature entrepreneur who proves that age is no barrier…
Last month I wrote a column entitled “What does it take to become young and successful?” Although most people seemed to take inspiration from the stories of the youthful entrepreneurs which I spoke with, some readers commented that they felt they could not become successful entrepreneurs – because they were no longer young. But do you actually have to be young? Is there such a thing as being too old to start a thriving businesses? (According to Dr. Juan Enriquez, a renowned Harvard researcher and TED fellow, the average age of the successful start-up founder is 54 years of age. That’s right, 54!)
To answer this question in more detail, I asked for the help of an entrepreneur, Dave Anderson , who started late, very late in life actually, and, despite all the odds, became highly successful. So successful, in fact, that today he commands a chain of 185 restaurants across the United States with a combined revenue of over 500 million dollars. I also asked him to share with us five principles that older entrepreneurs should have in mind when starting their ventures.
Growing up, Dave thought he would never succeed because, he says, “I was the dumbest kid in class. I had really bad grades and I do not have an undergraduate degree.” However, despite having low grades and not having an undergrad, Dave managed to receive a Master’s degree from Harvard. And eventually his entrepreneurial efforts would speak louder than his grades.
Before he started the Famous Dave’s restaurant chain in 1994, at 41, he encountered many obstacles. Dave was bankrupt twice, and almost a third time; he should have been dead three times and had to go through treatment (he has been sober now for over 18 years). Lastly, he was born to parents who were taken away from their families and were forced to go to Indian (Native American) Boarding schools.
His biggest letdown.
Everything changed when he realized two things: who his biggest letdown was, and that life was not about himself. His biggest letdown, he says, was himself. He constantly projected failure and thought negatively of his chances of succeeding. In fact, for a long time he blamed everyone and everything else for his misfortunes: the fact that he was a minority and did not have access to good financial resources; he did not have the right mentors; the economy was in bad shape, and so forth. Once he dealt with those issues, and decided to take responsibility for his own life, he had one last issue to take care of.
He says, “When I got sober I realized that if I surrendered myself to “being Dave Anderson” and if I stopped focusing on me, my life would be so much rewarding. By putting others first and using my talents, skills, hard work, and my creation of excellent product and services to the total devotion of obsessively making others happy… I would never have to worry about a paycheck again! This was a startling revelation for me.”
In 1994, he turned his life-long dream into a reality in the little town of Hayward, Wisconsin, by opening his first small restaurant. He recounts that his friends would drive by and tell him that he was crazy: “A BBQ join in Hayward? There’s only 1,800 people in town, and most are Swedes and Norwegians! You ought to go to Kansas City, Nashville, or Memphis.”
But he stayed true to his vision, and, by the end of that first summer, they were serving almost 1,000 people a night – without any advertising. In fact, he says that people would literally grab his by shirt sleeve and say that those were the best ribs they had ever tasted! The restaurant grew quickly through word of mouth, and success came sooner than anyone expected. In a few years, they started franchising, and received, from the Nation’s Restaurant News, the title of “one of the hottest restaurant concepts in America,” as well as “the best ribs in America.”
In the end, Dave turned his backyard grill into a $500 million dollar a year restaurant empire, and helped found two publicly traded companies. Famous Dave’s BBQ has won more awards than any highly acclaimed restaurant in NY City and Vegas. He has helped create over 20,000 new jobs and has been awarded by Oprah Winfrey the Angel Award for his work with at-risk youth.
After this inspiring interview, I asked Dave to share five key pieces of advice for entrepreneurs who, much like how he himself once felt, feel discouraged due to their age, lack of experience and/ or schooling (it’s also important to note once again that Dave almost didn’t graduate high school. He never received a bachelor’s degree either.) Here’s what he said:
1. Are you able to commit to whatever it takes to making your new business successful? “For example: An older career employee may have become accustomed to a certain comfortable lifestyle. Will you be willing to make difficult lifestyle changes to downsize your risks and give this new venture all the time, energy, and resources it needs to succeed? Are you capable of working double shifts without family pressures? Are you willing to change your lifestyle habits to devote to your new business…no vacations, no weekly golf outings, no new car every other year? If you have answered yes to all these questions, then you might be mentally, emotionally, and financially prepared to do whatever it takes to succeed!”
2. Don’t jump into it blindly, do your homework! “Have you picked the right business that matches your skills? As a successful restaurant owner, I see so many well-meaning people lose their entire life savings on a business they know nothing about. For example, a lifelong plumber and his wife decide upon retirement it would be nice for them to own their own Mom & Pop restaurant only to lose all their hard-earned money within a year’s time. I always give the advice: ‘If you’re looking to start your own business, are you already successful working for someone now? Has your current business ever come to you and said, ‘we need to open up a new branch office and we feel very confident that you can do this for us!’’ If not, there’s a good possibility you’re sure to fail quickly.”
3. A few important questions to ask yourself to see if you have the ability to succeed. “Here is a great way to find out: Ask everyone at your present place of employment or people you trust in your industry these three questions. First, ‘If you owned a business, would you hire me?’ Second, ‘If you owned a business, would you buy from me’ And the final question, ‘From what you know of me… if I were to start a business, would you invest your hard earned money into my new venture?’ If the people to whom you ask these questions make funny faces and think hard before giving you a resounding ‘YES’, then you better seriously evaluate your chances of succeeding with brutal honesty.”
4. Are you able to handle the risks at this late stage in life? “While you may have proved yourself as a highly successful professional in your craft, starting up a business always has its risks of failure. Are you willing to risk your family’s investment resources? Will the pressure of failure put an emotional stress on your family that you may not want to risk? I have seen so many examples of lifelong marriages that could not withstand the emotional pressures of a new business going through financial tough times. I feel my own success could have only been realized because I married a terrific person who stood by me through failures and successes.”
5. Is the business you are choosing to commit your time and resources to a business that you enjoy? “Because I am always asked to share my entrepreneurial story how I created Famous Dave’s Legendary Pit Barbeque… after my speeches, I have met so many people who come up to me afterward and tell me how they are living frustrated lives because they don’t like what they do for a living. Find a business that thrills you every day! I love barbecue. I eat, drink, sleep barbecue. Because I love what I do… I have devoted almost every waking minute to becoming the best at making other people happy with this BBQ. Don’t go into business just because you are looking for something to do. If you are going to own a business, start a business, or buy a business… make sure this business is something you will love, you will enjoy, and you will jump out of bed anxious to get to work.”
Lastly, Dave says that he believes that a person between the ages of 50 and 65 are at the prime of their working life span. This “senior” person brings resources, connections, know-how, probably a great credit history, and the confidence of surviving earlier tough times.
So remember, there is no right age to start a business, as each age has it’s positives and negatives. It’s all about you, your mental attitude and willingness to win! Maybe, soon, I’ll be writing an article about you.