you see 27-year-old Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg? Or
maybe Ben Milne, who created two successful companies in his
20s, including the mobile payment darling Dwolla? Or Ben
Silbermann, who 10 years after graduating from Des Moines'
Roosevelt High School helped launch one of the fastest
growing websites ever with Pinterest?
But if you look beyond those headline-grabbing names, you're
more likely to find a baby boomer launching a new business.
Over the past decade, the highest rate of entrepreneurial
activity belongs to the 55 to 64 age group, according to a
study by the Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City, Mo.-based
entrepreneurship institute. The 20 to 34 age bracket has the
Kauffman's latest study shows that about 23% of new
entrepreneurs in 2010 were in the 55 to 64 age group,
compared with 15% in 1996.
"When people think startups, they think kids," said
Christian Gurney of Torsion Mobile, a year-old Des Moines
tech firm. He and co-founder Richard Kirsner's combined ages
are 114, and they say it's no liability.
"We tell clients, 'We've made lot of mistakes and we're not
likely to repeat them.' That gets chuckles, but also wry
smiles," Gurney said. "They've worked with the new startup
sensation, a 20-something, and 50% of the time it flamed
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This month, Kauffman will begin a series of meetings around
the country to promote entrepreneurism among baby boomers,
generally defined as those born between 1946 and 1964. As
job security gets shakier, Kauffman and other groups are
raising awareness of the benefits of starting a business —
both for boomers and the economy.
If you equate innovation with youth, you're hardly alone.
Some of the top venture capitalists in Silicon Valley have
gushed about investing in 20-somethings full of creativity
and free of family entanglements.
"I find that people fundamentally stop trying new things
after about age 30," 57-year-old venture capitalist Vinod
Khosla has repeatedly said in speeches. "After 45, people
basically die. … They keep doing what they were doing
The age bias is real, said Mike Colwell, who advises
entrepreneurs as executive director of the Business
Innovation Zone, a nonprofit accelerator in Des Moines. But
it cuts both ways, depending on the industry and the
If you have a software company, "gray hair is a benefit if
you're selling to a banker," he said. "If you're trying to
invent the next Twitter, it's better to be in your 20s, to
know your users."
Lots of people in their 40s and 50s come to Colwell to
discuss launching a business. Some have lost their jobs.
Some are not ready to leave their job but want to see
whether their startup idea is viable, he said.
"They have a passion for something. They see a problem that
needs to be solved," he said.
Half the people who come to Colwell decide not to pursue
their startup ideas. That percentage is higher for the older
age group, he said, because of the risk or the time
Boomers often have some natural advantages for
entrepreneurship, including experience, expertise and
Those considering leaving a corporate career, however, face
a huge hurdle: the cost of health insurance, especially for
people with pre-existing conditions.
"It's real, and it does stop people," Colwell said. Solving
the problem "would open up a large number of people who want
to start businesses."
Colwell, 50, has worked with tech startups for much of his
career, but he's just recently become an entrepreneur. He's
launched two companies: casesimpl, which makes cases for
mobile electronics and accessories, and Notify Works, an
automated notification system for lawyers.
Would-be business people also come to Sylvia DeWitt, a
boomer and business broker. She helps people buy and sell
businesses through IAbusinessesforSALE.com, a business she
started three years ago after she left as a vice president
of American Express.
She also is administrator of the Iowa Entrepreneurs
Coalition, which includes 431 members of all ages. The group
has meet-ups electronically and in person to share ideas.
Most of the potential buyers she sees are in their 30s and
40s, but she's seen buyers as old as 82.
"Many baby boomers are not interested in retirement. They're
always interested in building something," she said.