For entrepreneurs, age can be a great asset

According to the Kaufman Foundation, the highest rate of entrepreneurial activity in the last decade has been among those aged 55 to 64. And last year alone, 35 percent of new businesses were started by those 50 or older.

Why is everyone so surprised? The mythology of entrepreneurship stresses post-adolescent males: those too brazen and too stupid to fear failure. The poster child for the myth is Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, with reinforcements from Google founders Sergey Brin and and Larry Page.

But focusing on these extremes is necessarily misleading, and the world of business startups is far more diverse. Nearly half of new businesses are started by women, and their companies are responsible for over 23 million jobs. Like most businesses, success rarely happens overnight, and the bulk of successes come from those with stamina and maturity.

When you think about it, this makes sense. What do you need to start a business? Not just an idea -- they're cheap. Far more important is expertise, and that's best honed on the job.

Equally important are contacts: people who can help, advise, open doors. These are gained through experience at work and in life. The best entrepreneurs I know used their day jobs to develop the know-how and the networks that were the foundations of their companies.

The oldest entrepreneur I ever encountered was Doris Drucker, who started her business when she was 82. Married to management guru Peter Drucker, she had obviously heard a lot about entrepreneurship, but she said her husband was no help except with the taxes. On the other hand, her expertise as a patent lawyer turned out to be invaluable.

Most important of all, however, was a degree of fearlessness and determination. She knew her way around the world and wasn't easily deterred. She also felt she had nothing to lose.

Yet when I teach entrepreneurship, my students regularly ask whether they're too old -- typically they're in their late 20s! No, I reassure them, they're definitely not too old.

The more serious question is: Do they know enough? Are their networks rich enough? I advise them to use their paycheck to complete their learning and start their investment fund. If they love their jobs, they may never need it.

But many of the finest business leaders started their companies when they became so frustrated in their jobs that they stormed out. Their rage was their launchpad; their savings were their fuel. Age doesn't matter -- it's drive that counts.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.