TOPICS > Economy

A Boom in Entrepreneurship, Self-Employment Among Late Bloomers

April 22, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Are mature entrepreneurs on the rise? Economics correspondent Paul Solman talks to older workers who decided to pursue their own business dreams later in life.
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GWEN IFILL: Now economics correspondent Paul Solman reports on late-blooming self-starters. It’s the latest chapter in his look at older workers in the American economy and all part of his ongoing reporting Making Sense of financial news.

JUDI HENDERSON-TOWNSEND, Mannequin Madness: Look at this nice tight stomach with the abs that you could grate cheese on.

PAUL SOLMAN: At 55, Judi Henderson-Townsend is working with a much younger crowd.

JUDI HENDERSON-TOWNSEND: You’re just like living in the land of Dorian Gray here. Nobody ever ages.

PAUL SOLMAN: After a career spent working with more than a few stiffs in the corporate world, says Townsend, she started Mannequin Madness.

JUDI HENDERSON-TOWNSEND: I sell mannequins, I rent mannequins, I repair mannequins, I blog about mannequins. Here in our warehouse, we recycle them for the stores for free, and then we resell them or rent them to other people.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, you mean all those good-looking folk back there were going to be dumped?

JUDI HENDERSON-TOWNSEND: Those were going to be tossed into the landfill because the store didn’t need them anymore. They’re just maybe a few years old, but, structurally, nothing is wrong with them. It’s like having a pre-owned Lexus.

PAUL SOLMAN: Townsend thinks she’s modeling a trend: the rise of the mature entrepreneur. And, indeed, since 1996, the share of business owners age 55 to 64 has grown more than nine percent. And whereas just one-tenth of the total U.S. work force is self-employed …

JULIE ZISSIMOPOULOS, University of Southern California: You look at workers in their mid-50s, it’s 15 percent. You look at workers 65, 66, 67, 68, you’re up at 25 percent.

PAUL SOLMAN: University of Southern California economist Julie Zissimopoulos has studied oldish entrepreneurs.

JULIE ZISSIMOPOULOS: They’re more educated. They have higher income and wealth. They are more willing to take on risks. They have had lots of on-the-job training, lots of work force experience. They can bring all of this into the development of a new business or a new service.

PAUL SOLMAN: Townsend’s penchant for dummies began as a hobby. She looked on Craigslist for a mannequin to put in her garden, ended up buying 50 of them, and started renting them out as a side gig. Soon, her unlikely business was booming. So the longtime sales executive decided to give full-time self-employment a try.

JUDI HENDERSON-TOWNSEND: I think being the age I am is an advantage. Number one, I would have never had the confidence to step out on such a crazy venture like this in my youth, and also because I bring a lot of my previous experience. It’s just about marketing and sales, right? I just happen to have a kind of an unusual product.

PAUL SOLMAN: It’s taken plenty of legwork, but Mannequin Madness now sells or rents more than 200,000 bodies and limbs annually and is an environmental leader, recycling 100,000 pounds of non-flesh a year.

One key to growth: marketing the mannequins online with help from consultant Cynthia Mackey.

CYNTHIA MACKEY, Baby Boomer Business Owner: What I like to recommend is know where your audience is and what do they like to do online? So, with you, Pinterest has been wildly successful.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, you might expect the social media guru to be on the young side. But Mackey too is in her 50s, as is the target audience for her business.

CYNTHIA MACKEY: Baby Boomer Business Owner workshops, and they’re designed to help those who are non-technical or feel overwhelmed by tech to do their jobs better online.

PAUL SOLMAN: Cynthia Mackey is capitalizing on the late bloomer self-employment boom. Self-employed herself, she knows the draw.

CYNTHIA MACKEY: You’re not working for someone else and you get to take that value for your own benefit. If I want to take my mom out for breakfast, I can schedule that and then work longer hours in the evening. So having control of my time or the ability to schedule things, that — that’s wonderful as you get older, I think.

PAUL SOLMAN: But not everyone chooses self-employment. To many, the great recession offered few other options.

MICHAEL GROTTOLA, MGG Consulting: On my 65th birthday, my boss comes into my office and tells me I’m no longer needed. And that wasn’t the birthday present I expected.

PAUL SOLMAN: Michael Grottola was one of thirty senior-level employees cut loose from auditing firm KPMG. His outplacement counselor’s advice?

MICHAEL GROTTOLA: He said, Mike, there are just so many thrones and there’s too many princes. That’s the state of our economy in 2009. And he was in no way encouraging that I should even try to look for work, the gray hair, the high salary, all that stuff. I mean, they can’t say those things, but don’t tell me they’re not thinking those things, and that’s how the real world is.

PAUL SOLMAN: With a wife and two adopted daughters to support, Grottola couldn’t just hang it up. So he decided to go it alone, founding MGG Consulting to advise other small businesses.

MICHAEL GROTTOLA: Hanging up a shingle and rolling your own business and opening up the bank accounts, and getting the company name, and promoting, and all that stuff is not for everybody. But if it’s for you, it’s a lot of fun. I had no job, no money, no customers, no nothing. And today I have 40 clients. I have hired someone full-time. I have grown, but it’s been hard work.

PAUL SOLMAN: How old is too old?

MICHAEL GROTTOLA: I think I can do this until 80 or 90, all right? And the reality is, I don’t think you can think in terms of too old. It’s how you feel, it’s how much fire you have. And if you’re smart and you realize you’re getting older, well, then get into a business where you leverage the younger people, and eventually you become the great gray god.

PAUL SOLMAN: Marc Freedman runs a nonprofit called Encore.org. He has long seen entrepreneurship as an answer to the challenges posed by the mass of ripening boomers approaching traditional retirement age.

MARC FREEDMAN, Encore.org. As a society, we need to take the full productive potential of this population and use it in ways that will help everybody benefit, especially as the demographics change. You can’t just have 30- or 40-year retirements. And so these entrepreneurs and the others who are working longer are fashioning a new stage of life that’s much more sustainable.

PAUL SOLMAN: But others doubt that older entrepreneurship is the answer.

VINOD KHOSLA, Venture Capitalist: I find that people fundamentally stop trying new things after the age of 30.

PAUL SOLMAN: Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla:

VINOD KHOSLA: After 45, people basically die.

PAUL SOLMAN: Khosla was being provocative, says he invests in several firms run by folks over 45. But Freedman says he’s voicing the conventional wisdom, that, after a certain age, folks are thought to be well past their useful prime.

MARC FREEDMAN: It turns out that creativity has a life that’s very different from the popular assumption. Cezanne’s most valuable work is done in his late 60s. Louise Bourgeois, the great sculptor, does her most valuable work in her 80s. And economists have shown over and over again that there is this late blooming burst of creativity that I think is showing up not just in the arts, but also in entrepreneurship, in social innovation.

And I think it raises the question that an older society doesn’t necessarily have to be a less innovative one.

PAUL SOLMAN: In fact, one much-cited study showed the average age at which people produce great innovations has risen substantially over the last century. Encore.org was founded to encourage innovation, awarding the annual Purpose Prize to seniors doing social good.

MARC FREEDMAN: They don’t set out with a grand notion and identity as entrepreneur. They set out a step at a time to solve a problem that’s in front of them, and in many ways leads to very creative new ventures.

PAUL SOLMAN: Mike Grottola’s client Paul Jetter, for example, his business was inspired by compassion for his father.

PAUL JETTER, Safely Back Home: One day he was driving to work, and he became disoriented. And even though he’s worked every day that I have known him, he decided that he could not go in.

PAUL SOLMAN: At 85 he had Alzheimer’s — a common symptom of the disease, wandering.

PAUL JETTER: I looked into what were the programs out there for wandering. And nearly all of them required that you wear a bracelet, whether it’s tracking or an I.D. And I knew he wouldn’t wear a bracelet.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, with a little help from Grottola, Jetter is setting up Safely Back Home to make garments to help identify and find quick care for lost loved ones, a second career at age 59.

JUDI HENDERSON-TOWNSEND: Not your typical kind of mannequin, of course, more like a paper doll.

PAUL SOLMAN: Thanks to Judi Henderson-Townsend’s rental business, senescent fashion models are getting a second life too.

JUDI HENDERSON-TOWNSEND: I have given them an opportunity to have an encore career. We’re seeing that with seniors, right? They still have a lot of great things that they can contribute, but they’re old.

PAUL SOLMAN: Old, sure, but, with vision and a body of work to draw on, not too old to start something startlingly new.

GWEN IFILL: Online, Judi Henderson-Townsend describes the unusual reasons customers need mannequins. You can also find tips for senior entrepreneurs. That’s on our Making Sen$e page.