Some people seem to have been born entrepreneurs. Others have entrepreneurship thrust upon them — especially in recent years, when the job market has been particularly tough on older employees.
Although older workers actually have lower unemployment rates than younger ones, they are unemployed longer when they do lose a job: 55.7 weeks for workers over 55, compared to 37.3 weeks for workers under 55, according to March 2012 statistics compiled by AARP. That's particularly devastating because the unemployment occurs during peak earning years.
For some, being laid off, or seeing peers losing their job, has become a catalyst to entrepreneurship. "It's hard to leave a six-figure income, but when the corporation makes the decision for them, it's the needed catalyst," said Mike Welch, President of FranNet Minnesota, a company that helps potential entrepreneurs to find and evaluate franchise businesses.
Welch acknowledges that franchisees tend to be somewhat older than the serial entrepreneur who starts following a passion in his or her twenties. Still, he says that his client base has "skewed older and older" in recent years. The average age is now 54.5, and he worked with a client last year who was 65. Many of these people, Welch says, are people who spent 30 or more years in corporate America and fully intended to get "the party, the pension, the fruit basket and the gold watch," but found themselves abruptly terminated instead.
Rowley Mayo is one of those people. "I worked in business and the corporate world all my life," he said. In January 2009, his manager praised his work and the company gave him a substantial raise. "Eight months later, they walked into my office and said, 'We've decided we're going in a different direction, and we don't need you any more.'"
The layoff came just one week before his youngest daughter's marriage. "Talk about putting a dark cloud over a young girl's wedding," he said. "I think that bothered me more than getting fired."
Mayo followed the classic profile of the laid-off older worker: "I did the whole routine — shopped résumés, got hardly any responses at all." The turning point came in June 2010, when he and his wife talked about following a long-discussed dream of owning their own business. "I sat down and outlined the criteria I would look for in a business," Mayo said. "I started looking. Franchising was something I considered. I wound up talking to a broker. They put me in touch with Mr. Appliance."
Mayo's commitment to entrepreneurship met an unexpected challenge: On the day he bought his airline tickets to go talk to the franchiser, he got an offer, in writing, for a full-time job with a health-care company. He decided to go ahead with the trip anyway, and after meeting with the franchise company, he and his wife agreed he should turn down the job. "You know, I could take this job and 12 months later the same thing would happen. Or we could wind up regretting that we didn't try this."
Mayo is now three years into the franchise operation, with three technicians working for him and a fourth soon to be hired. He's getting close to the income he had before the layoff. He carefully chose a business that is "recession-proof," that can be run out of his house or from where ever he happens to be. "Its success and failure is based on us," he said. "Someday I can semi-retire and have the right people running it."
Welch said he can tell in "a couple of hours" whether someone has what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur. "They have the skill set — they've managed people and profit, and they've built business in the companies where they've worked," he said. While Welch looks for a certain level of experience, he said it's possible for a corporate executive to be "overqualified" for entrepreneurship. "If a person is super-high-level, a master strategist who hasn't executed tactics in more than a decade, they may have trouble coming out of the penthouse. They're doing to be starting a small business. It could be three to five years of being intimately involved with details before they're really up and running." □