Blue-jeans thinking

Image of Gillian Tett

A decade ago, Susie Crippen, a Los Angeles-based fashion stylist and occasional cabaret singer, thought her career was dead. At the age of 40 she had been working in a bar, before turning to a motley collection of stylist jobs. And though she dreamt of making it big in the fashion world, she doubted it could happen; at her age most of her contemporaries were already settled into careers. “I felt like I was going nowhere,” she recently explained to me. “I had no [health] insurance, no savings, I was drowning in $50,000-$60,000 of credit card debt. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life.”

But then Crippen’s luck – or mindset – changed. In 2003 she started dating Jeff Rudes, a textile expert, and persuaded him to join forces to create a company, J Brand, funded by friends and family, which would sell jeans for consumers who wanted streamlined, dark-hued styles. On paper, it seemed an unlikely venture; Crippen had never been an entrepreneur before, the fashion world was already full of jeans and J Brand’s so-called “skinny jeans” were priced at several hundred dollars.

But Crippen became obsessed with creating a “jeans empire” and her creative eye blended with Rudes’ business smarts. Within a few years, J Brand had exploded; so much so that when the pair sold it in 2010, the company was valued at $80m. It has since been resold for $300m; those skinny jeans turned out to be a gold mine.

Just another tale of fashion world madness? Perhaps. But there is another aspect to this story that is striking and, to my 45-year-old eyes, heartening: Crippen’s age. These days, it is easy to assume that successful entrepreneurs are all young. We live in a world that worships youth culture, where celebrities and politicians seem younger by the day and where the entrepreneurs in the limelight – Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson or Steve Jobs, say – tend to have created companies in their twenties. Indeed, last month there was a buzz when Yahoo paid $30m to buy a start-up created by a 17-year-old London-based entrepreneur, Nick D’Aloisio; he owned some of the intellectual rights to an app that aggregates news.

But while teenagers make good newspaper headlines, what usually gets ignored is that it is actually their parents’ generation – or people such as Crippen – who are the most active in terms of creating new companies in the US today. Take a look at the data. The Kaufman Foundation (which is dedicated to tracking entrepreneurship) recently analysed the age profile of entrepreneurs and discovered that 34 per cent of them were aged between 35 and 44 and 29 per cent between 45 and 54. Just 18 per cent were under the age of 34 – the same proportion as those over 55. “Entrepreneurship is concentrated among individuals in mid-career, ie between 35 and 44 years of age,” writes Dane Stangler, a researcher at Kaufman.

Admittedly, in some sub-sectors the profile is younger: an MIT study of its graduates, for example, suggests that there are a lot of Zuckerberg wannabes in the computing world; the majority of IT entrepreneurs tend to be in their twenties, and overwhelmingly men. However, what is really notable is that if you look at all sectors of the economy, the age of entrepreneurs seems to be rising, not falling. Back in 2004, a study from the Panel Study of Entrepreneurial Dynamics found that the “bulge” age for entrepreneurs was 25-34, and this was echoed by other research in the 1990s.

Why this rise has occurred is not clear, since national data on entrepreneurship is very patchy (which is ironic, given how much politicians love to talk about entrepreneurs). It might reflect the overall ageing of America. It might stem from the economic squeeze, and the fact that many people today cannot get normal career jobs. A third possibility is that as careers have become more uncertain, it is more acceptable to take a mid-career risk. “This [pattern] differs from the conventional belief that entrepreneurship is mostly the province of the very young, who are presumably unfettered, willing to take risks, have low discount rates, and are undeterred from challenging established ways of doing things,” says Stangler. Or, as Crippen suggests: “With the economy the way it is, a lot of people no longer want to rely on others.”

Either way, I find this trend – and Crippen’s tale – cheering. Of course, few of these mid-age entrepreneurs will ever enjoy J Brand’s success. And even Crippen’s story has not been smooth. Three years ago she left J Brand after splitting from Rudes. But these days she is using her experience to back the Trickle-Up foundation, which tries to encourage more entrepreneurship among poor women. And, at the age of 49, she is now engaged in a new entrepreneurial gamble with another brand. “What is tough about our society is that as women get older, they often seem less relevant. But as we get older we get more confident,” she observes.

“At 30 I didn’t have the confidence to [start out] but at 40 I did. I just hope many more people can learn that too.” To which I would say a hearty “amen”; even – or especially – at a time when 17-year-old computer geeks are being feted for their deals.

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