In praise of the late arrivals

Three founders well over 50 tell Jonathan Moules about being older but wiser when starting a new venture

At the age of 58 William Agush was told by the five-year-old Boston technology start-up where he was working as a contractor that he was surplus to requirements. So, after a 30-year career in various salaried posts at various IT companies, large and small, Mr Agush decided to found his own app business, Shuttersong.

The idea, sparked by a “talking” picture frame that he found while tidying his study, was to allow smartphone users to attach sound files to their digital pictures and share them with friends over Twitter or Facebook. Although Mr Agush now wears a hearing aid in both ears, he is a big fan of the spoken word, an interest nurtured by listening to talk shows on US National Public Radio.

“It was a wonderful epiphany,” he says, noting that the notion of an app came while he was looking for a notebook that he had spent years filling with business ideas.

Now Mr Agush is hoping to close a second round of equity funding before he turns 60 in February. This would increase his war chest to £8.3m, enough for his team, in Boston and London, to further develop the app’s functionality so they can move to charging users.

Shuttersong’s first and second round of funding, raising a total of $2.1m, included money from partners at Boston law firm Bingham McCutchen. “I think they felt the person they were giving money to was trustworthy,” Mr Agush says. “These kids who found bus­inesses straight after leaving school have no operating skills. They have passion but they burn through cash because they make mistakes that a seasoned business person would not make.”

Many of Shuttersong’s early adopters have been those young graduates Mr Agush feels are so ill-prepared to launch ventures. But the app has also proved a hit with retirees, who download Shuttersong to share memories of projects they have undertaken in retirement. Corporate users have also created material for marketing campaigns, he says.

This year Shuttersong was selected for V2Venture, a pitching contest run by South by Southwest, the annual geek gathering in Austin, Texas. Mr Agush was the oldest finalist.

“I see no reason why anyone in their fifties should not start a tech business,” he says. “But if you are my age and considering going down the app path I would caution against creating anything to do with dating or other services that might be considered a bit creepy.”

Like other tech founders, Mr Agush relies on sharing office space with fellow early-stage ventures. However, he is the only person in the room in a shirt and tie. On a visit to the UK, he is speaking in one of the old Southwark warehouses that are home to some of London’s hottest start-ups, such Zoopla and Joseph Joseph. As he talks he fiddles with his collar, apparently more uncomfortable with his choice of clothing than his new career.

“Everybody gets older, you cannot stop that,” he says. “We are all now expected to live to 90 or 100, so what the hell are we going to do for all these years? Retirement is not the same as it was for my father.”

Mr Agush’s decision to become a founder in the run-up to three score years is bang on trend, according to start-up statistics. In July, the UK edition of Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, which analyses early-stage start-up activity, found that 6.5 per cent of Britons aged 50 and over are launching new ventures, the highest proportion yet, eclipsing the 6 per cent of 18-to-29-year-olds starting up.

Many older founders are for­ced to consider making their own way bec­ause of losing a job, but others do so because they spy opport­unities, says Jonathan Levie, professor of entrepreneurship at Strathclyde University and co-author of the Gem report. “With the over-fifties, increasing their income is a bigger motivator for starting their business than independence,” he says. “With younger entrepreneurs, it is the opposite.”

Martyn Curley, 63, and Steve Oldbury, 59, who founded a professional pitch pre­paration service, Bidwriting.com, as quinquagenarians in 2007, are clear­ly ambitious for their company having joined a business growth and development programme run by the UK’s Cranfield School of Management. “One of the advantages of being 50-plus is that we have come through several previous recessions,” says Mr Curley, formerly a director at FTSE 250 company Connaught. “Those lessons learnt have proved invaluable . . . We fully understand both our market and what our customers want.”

Entrepreneurs over 50 are less like­ly to express fear of failure, according to the Gem UK research. They are also less likely to say they need mentoring support, but that could be viewed as a weakness when successful entrepreneurship is so much about learning from others.

Geraldine Abrahams launched Glasgow-based infant products business Tummy With Mummy four years ago when she was 60. The business, which sells a foldaway baby seat designed to give infants a gentle physical workout, is the crystallisation of an idea Ms Abrahams had been nurturing for years as a mother of five children who worked as a freelance journalist, including on health.

A granddaughter modelled the seat for the website at three months, and although turnover was barely six figures this year, it is profitable, with 90 per cent of sales from overseas customers. Help with setting up the business and finding export markets has come from Business Gateway Glasgow’s programme and Scottish Enterprise.

However, day-to-day entrepreneurial guidance comes from Ms Abrahams’ sons David and Mike, who joined as head of manufacturing and marketing respectively. They are also minority shareholders. “Had I been doing this on my own, I know I wouldn’t be still here now,” Ms Abrahams says. “It needed that input of youthful determination from my sons as well as their loyal support.”

Building a business takes time, admits Ms Abrahams, who had waited until her youngest child started university before creating her company.

There are charitable bodies that help older people set up in business, but Ms Abrahams dislikes the idea of specialist advice for particular age groups: “It really shouldn’t matter. An entrepreneur is an entrepreneur.”

Will the age of the oldest founders continue to rise? Not according to Prof Levie. “The start-up rate drops drastically after the age of 64,” he says, adding that inhibiting factors such as deteriorating physical health accelerate after this point.

“Entrepreneurship among older people may rise a bit as retirement ages rise, but I don’t think the rise will be very strong.”

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