By: Zuzanna Reda- Jakima
Photos: Chris Karaba
You may be fresh from university or have spent 25 years slogging for your boss: starting up your own business is always risky. Yet, unlike the image of energetic whizzkids earning a fortune in their twenties – 50-year-old entrepreneurs are almost twice as likely to succeed as 30-year-olds, according to a recent study.
The Luxembourg Times spoke to a half dozen people aged around 50 years, who recently set up their own business after corporate careers. Some could no longer stand the office politics, others lacked a sense of meaning, and some started a project they had been thinking of for years. Despite the odds- theoretically- playing in their favour, the decision was not easy for any of them. Yet none regretted it.
Taking the plunge
“I bumped into the managing partner during lunch and just told him (I was leaving),” said Laurent Denayer, who set up fintech Ume Solutions after 15 years at EY. “(If I hadn’t come across him) it would have taken me more time. At some point, you have to jump and not look back. You then regret you haven’t done it earlier,” he said.
Claudia Neumeister, who made a career as an HR executive, started questioning the purpose of her work. “I knew that something had to change,” she said. At 50 years of age, she decided to go back to university to study psychology. “I spent several years at Amazon where Jeff Bezos’s Regret Minimisation Framework is repeated like a mantra,” she said, referring to the US billionaire’s one-question decision-taking model: ‘In X years, will I regret not doing this?’. And so she decided to set up a dating portal for older people, an idea she had had for a long time.
Georges Bock, a managing partner at KPMG Luxembourg at the time, had his ‘what next?’ moment when he turned 50. “After almost 30 years (with the same company), I wanted to do something else,” he said. He quit in 2018 and gave himself 20 months to succeed. Eventually, he launched InvesTRe, a peer2peer investment platform. “You need to have a clear idea of what you want to do next,” he said. “If it’s just to run away, that’s never a good (reason)”.
People in their middle age often find it harder to land a new role because fewer positions are available than when you are in your twenties, said Daniel Matkovits, who is working on a fintech education for teenagers. ” You struggle to find an offer at your pay grade and seniority,” Matkovits said. “[But] Luxembourg is an excellent place to launch a business.”
A huge change
Expertise is the big advantage when venturing out as an entrepreneur later in life.
“If you’re a startupper at 50+, it’s because you had an interesting career,” said Jane Wilkinson, a green finance advisor who used to head the Luxembourg Green Exchange. “Clients are buying (my services because of) my past experience – it is important what I’ve done so far,” she said. When potential clients ask why Wilkinson left her old job, she’s honest. “The management style did not suit me, I did not agree with the CEO, and so I decided to move on.”
With experience also comes resourcefulness. You need to know who to ask for advice, who can help, and how to find a way around a problem. “After years in the corporate world, you see the soft underbelly – where [big companies] are vulnerable. This is your opportunity,” Matkovits said. And you need to be able to deal with mundane stuff.
You may proudly call yourself CEO, but you will also be PA, cleaner, courier, sales representative, PR, accountant, and event expert – the list goes on.” At EY (I used to) spend time in meetings, now I have to work myself,” Denayer said. There’s no one to take minutes or send follow-up emails on your behalf. “You go to the post office yourself. You buy staples yourself. You do things that you were doing at the start of your career,” he said.
Money is likely to be less.
“The income is not like in the corporate world, but I am freer,” Neumeister said. Others also like the fact they have no fixed schedule. “You manage your own agenda, recruit the people you want, and celebrate what you decide to celebrate,” Wilkinson said. You do the work when you have to,” she said. “and when the sun is out, you might decide not to. New entrepreneurs also find that they are invited to fewer events now that they are no longer part of a global brand. “You lose some people you thought were friends,” Denayer said. “But you have your milestones, and so you aren’t bothered,” he said.
Independent workers of all ages complain about the fact that they feel lonely. “(You lose) the feeling of belonging to a bigger-than-me group,” Neumeister said. “Alone, you are just you, an ex-Amazon”. “I miss having colleagues to share a laugh,” Wilkinson said. “Best ideas come from teams”. She recommends having a mentor. “Someone who’s done it – even if they were not successful.” Startuppers often struggle with confidence and constantly doubt the very idea they want to market. “One day, I wake up thinking I need more patience, and then (that) maybe I’m too late (with the product),” Bock said. “(The upside is that) as you’re the boss, … you can try out (other) things if something doesn’t work,” Neumeister said. Good preparation is essential. “Ideally, exchange with trusted people, experts in the field, and with potential consumers,” Bock said. That can be hard, especially for those in the same industry as their employer. “Talk about your dream without saying that it’s yours. Get feedback. Test your idea,” Wilkinson said.
On average, entrepreneurs gave themselves a year. “After you sign the first client, you feel more credible,” Wilkinson said. But what if there is no light at the end of the tunnel after 12 months? “There’s always a plan B – whether you know it or not,” Bock said. “Failure is part of success.” Others agreed. “If my idea fails, I can always find a corporate job. I was very good at recruitment, and someone would always want to work with me,” Neumeister said. “It’s like with getting married,” Bock said. You don’t think of a divorce on your wedding day; you choose to believe that everything will work out just fine. And whatever the difficulties, not a single one of the people in this story missed corporate life. So for them, at least, it was never too late to start up.