Older heads with young ideas – Starting up your own firm at 50+
When they hear the word «pioneer», many people will think of young whizz kids like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The founders of Offcut, Mybuxi and Realcycle are all over 50. And are supported by Migros.
Now they are sitting here. At a long wooden table surrounded by bales of cloth, rolls of paper, jars full of plaster powder and boxes of cables and screws. Lilo Fritz (55) and Claudia Meyr (51) are discussing product displays in their materials mart in Bern.
They opened Offcut Bern at the start of the year. They sell used materials and remnants, so that these do not end up as waste materials. The two women have sat together for a thousand hours considering how and where to raise «their baby».
They spent the previous 30 years of work doing completely different things. Claudia Meyr worked in communications and Lilo Fritz in floristry and administration. Independently of one another they both came up with the concept of the materials mart, and concluded that Bern needed one. Meyr and Fritz came together through the «Offcut Schweiz» project, which is funded by the Migros Pioneer Fund.
«Before we first met I was thinking Lilo is bound to be young - as is so often the case with sustainability concepts,» says Claudia Meyr. She herself had just turned 50. «When I came in and saw an older woman there, I was a little relieved,» says Meyr with a laugh.
We both have a lot of experience and knew what we were letting ourselves in for.
Lilo Fritz founder, Offcut Bern
A shared fascination for materials and sustainability
They got on immediately, perhaps partly because of the age factor, adds Lilo Fritz. There was a fundamental understanding between them. «We both have a lot of professional and life experience, and knew what we were letting ourselves in for.» That there would many hours of work to follow, looking for the right location, fitting it out, recruiting, looking for materials, and also spending time on issues like how to set up the cash management and bookkeeping systems. And all this alongside their day jobs.
The shared fascination for the materials and sustainability helped. «We were brought up not to simply throw things away,» says Lilo Fritz. She remembers having a «come-in-handy» stash at home as a child. «It was a chest in which my mother put cloth remnants or empty boxes. I would use them to make things with when I got bored.» Offcut is the «come-in-handy» stash, just on a large scale.
More older workers are self-employed these days
The two women scarcely think any more about the fact that they are not the youngest of start-up entrepreneurs. Plenty of people are doing the same as them. A look at the Swiss labour force survey shows that the proportion of self-employed is greater in each ascending age group. Of course, not all count as pioneers.
But the numbers illustrate a trend. The highest proportion of self-employed comes in the 55-64 age group, at just on 20 per cent. For the 40-45 age group it is 15 per cent; but amongst 25-39-year-olds it is only 7 per cent. The self-employed are, on average, some seven years older than salaried workers. This suggests that many people spend a few years as an employee before leaving to do their own thing.
This was the case with Andreas Kronawitter. After 18 years working for firms like SBB and BLS, the 52-year-old astrophysicist went self-employed three years ago. He launched Mybuxi, an on-demand transport service for people living in the countryside. Kronawitter had had a concept of how smart mobility should work for a long time.
Ideas don't always have to be brand new
«But I had always had a lot of respect for people selling to new customers/markets, because I am not a natural salesman.» Nevertheless, as he acquired ever more working experience, he noticed: «If I'm truly convinced of something, then I've got what it takes.» Of course, he's no Mark Zuckerberg, who founded Facebook at 20. «Starting up a business and innovation seem to be more difficult for older people, because they have more commitments and dependencies than young people who have just come out of education.» On the other hand, older people know how to solve important problems and are less likely to lose their grip on reality.
Kronawitter keeps up to date with technology through training courses and networking within the sector. Ideas don't always have to be brand new. «You can also combine what's already out there in a new way and take a pioneering approach to developing it further.» The ability to think flexibly and act quickly is most definitely important. When the coronavirus lockdown put an end to demand for sharing cars or lifts, Kronawitter changed track within a matter of days to start offering a home delivery service. These days he sometimes wonders why he didn't start doing his own thing years before. «But it maybe wouldn't have worked then.»
Experience breeds success
Greater success with advancing age? Yes, say researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US. In their study «The twenty-year-old entrepreneur is a lie» they analysed the correlation between the age of the entrepreneur and the success of his or her start-up. The founders of particularly strongly-performing start-ups were on average over 40 at the point of start-up, and over 45 for the very best-performing firms.
You can have good ideas at any age but, according to the authors, you need experience to make them succeed. Steve Jobs is a good example of this. He founded Apple aged just 21. But 23 years went by before the company launched the iMac.
Networks open doors for you
All good things need time. That is Raymond Schelker's experience as well. The 57-year-old environmental engineer set up his own business offering one-stop consultancy in all aspects of the circular economy in his mid-30s. And he faced two uphill struggles. The circular economy - put very simply: recycling instead of dumping - was a very new concept at the time. «On top of that, as young consultants, we didn't have much of a track record that we could point to. We didn't have the credibility and we didn't have the networks.» That is all water under the bridge.
But now Schelker is going for it again: with his new project Realcycle, he is developing a centre of excellence to help create a sustainable circular economy for plastics. «I am much better-known in the sector these days, and people know what I can do. That opens a lot of doors.» He is also approaching the project differently to how he would have done 20 years ago.
«I exude a lot more confidence today.» And over the years he has built up a network, a body of knowledge and a set of arguments that will not fail to impress. «You need courage to risk ending up with a flop - but otherwise there would be no more innovation,» he says. Experience and self-confidence also play a significant role in success.
Courage and self-belief are important
The Offcut ladies are also convinced that courage and self-belief are important. «As the years go by, you do develop the composure and assurance that things will work out,» says Claudia Meyr. They have no fear of failure. «You don't fail in life,» says Lilo Fritz. «The point is, you try things out and you learn from them.»
And they, of course, have still not stopped learning. They are currently discussing the best way to deploy their team of - by now - seven people, and what the management structure should look like. More than enough material for several more hours at the long wooden table.
It's a long and hard road to success.
Matthias Filser Head of the Center for Entrepreneurship at ZHAW
A lot of time and energy needs to be invested
Older entrepreneurs score on efficiency, younger ones on their ability to think big. Start-up expert Matthias Filser talking about success factors and stumbling blocks.
Matthias Filser, in our minds, pioneers are young. Why is this so?
Young people tend to be driven by a desire to create something new and to rethink things. Particularly when it comes to sustainability, products that assist society and the environment, and in the use of technology, they are often the drivers of innovation. There are some well-known young faces that we associate with fantastic success. We like to report on and write about them. And that sticks in our minds.
Are young people the better pioneers?
They do enjoy an advantage where new technologies are concerned, as they find it easier to access them. Many innovations in the tech sector have come from younger people, who have grown up with these technologies. They think big and are prepared to challenge conventional wisdom.
Where do the strengths of older entrepreneurs lie?
In their proven knowledge and their experience. They often tackle problems in a more focused way, frequently by drawing parallels with problems solved in their own working environment. Thanks to their experience and their networks - a critical factor working in their favour - they normally succeed quite efficiently in achieving their goals.
The employment statistics show that most people become self-employed after 40 - even if they're not all pioneers.
That stems partly from job market conditions, which call for new skill profiles. For many, this subsequently leads to self-employment. However, there is no radically new innovation at the core of every start-up. Others just want to build up a second source of revenue.
Which is better, a younger or an older pioneer?
Irrespective of their generation, it's important that they're doers. Are they really prepared to invest a huge amount of their time and energy to be successful? Behind most success stories it’s been a long and hard road to get there. I get the impression that younger people are often dazzled by the success stories and millions earned on exit, but they don't take into consideration the path to that success.
Funding pioneering projects
Offcut, Mybuxi and Realcycle are all being supported by the Migros Pioneer Fund. The development fund is one element of the Migros Group's voluntary social engagement activities. It enables pioneering projects to carve out new ways forward and deliver future-oriented solutions for a constantly-changing society. To date it has funded over 90 projects, in areas such as nutrition, digitalisation or collaboration. Migros companies such as Denner, Migros Bank, Migrolino and Migrol invest ten per cent of their dividends annually in such projects, a total of 10 to 15 million Swiss francs.
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Photo/stage: Rafael Walder