Huffpost Small Business

Starting A Business After 50: How I Did It

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Rieva Lesonsky left her corporate job telling people how to start businesses to actually start her own business ... at age 55.
Rieva Lesonsky left her corporate job telling people how to start businesses to actually start her own business ... at age 55.

Why do people start businesses? The typical answers -- to get rich, to follow a passion, to find work/life balance -- are rarely the true reasons. First of all, they're not sound rationales. Only the lucky few get rich running a business, you need a lot more than passion to make it work, and, in my experience, the search for so-called life/work balance becomes a fool's errand.

How do I know these things? Well, I have spent the better part of my adult years supporting, writing about and advocating for entrepreneurs -- most of them, somewhat ironically, as an employee, editing Entrepreneur magazine for over 25 years. For the past four years, I've been running my own company, so I speak from experience.

I will confess that it never occurred to me to start a business (outside of wishful thinking after editing an article on yet another successful entrepreneur and asking myself, "Why didn’t I think of that?"), until I was well into my 50s. After all, I was relatively happy with my job -- or so I thought.

This odd combination of contentment and self-delusion is common for the women who were born on the leading edge of the baby boom (I'm 59). When Betty Friedan wrote "The Feminine Mystique" in 1963, giving birth to the feminist revolution, many of us were still in grade school or junior high, relatively unaware of the possibilities that were being opened for us. In fact, a few years later, my high-school guidance counselor presented me with the three careers that were open to me: teacher, nurse or secretary. I, of course, promptly rejected them all, and out of desperation remembered seeing women's bylines in The New York Times, and declared my intent to be a journalist.

By our nature, journalists are not inherently entrepreneurial (or weren't -- there's been a primordial shift just in the last five years). We are trained to observe and report. So it took me a long time to realize I was in the equivalent of a bad marriage, pretending everything was OK, but knowing it wasn't. And I had been "married" far too long.

The perils of starting a business are well known. Most startups fail within the first five years. Cash flow is an issue, even in the best of economic times. And if you’re single, you realize there's no safety net, no spouse's income to rely on while you build your business. Add to that the fact that at 50 or older, there's simply less time to recoup any losses that may occur, and you wonder why anyone would be crazy enough to embark into the great unknown world of entrepreneurship.

And yet, why not? That’s the question I kept asking myself. Why not? And I could never come up with a reason. The truth is, I'm not very introspective. I don't mull things over very well -- I’m more the impulsive type. That's how I ended up on Thanksgiving day, at the age of 55, in Paris for the first time, staring at the magnificence of the Cathedral at Notre Dame sipping the best hot chocolate ever made, and deciding, "Why not?!"

I was in business with several of my former employees four months later. Little did I realize I was part of a surge: The Kauffman Foundation reports that in the past 10 years or so, 55- to 64-year-olds boasted the highest rate of entrepreneurial activity, while 20- to 34-year-olds had the lowest.

I won't lie and tell you owning a business is oh-so-easy. I have never worked this hard in my life. Or slept so little. There were moments (more like months) where I questioned my decision several times a day -- and my sanity even more often. There were times I didn’t think we'd make it. I can recount almost every high (meeting new people who've become friends, partners, clients and mentors; winning a new contract), and low (clients who go out of business; learning the cost of health care; finding out people you thought were your friends really weren't).

But I don't regret taking the leap. Do I wish I'd divorced my job earlier? Absolutely. But apparently "50 is the new 30" -- and The Telegraph newspaper in England has dubbed us 50-plus women "quintastics," so I’m not worried.

So why do people start businesses? Everyone has their own motivations. Some have no choice, others are pushed, some meticulously plan, others are spontaneously creative, and some, like me, just decide our time has come.

Rieva Lesonsky is the founder and CEO of GrowBiz Media, a Lakewood, Calif.-based provider of information and resources for business owners, and a member of the HuffPost Small Business Board of Directors.