Boomer Entrepreneurs on the ‘FastTrac’ for Business Success

Dan Stratman had an idea. As a captain, he knew the airline industry. He decided to launch a mobile app, “Airport Life,” that aims to make the lives of travelers easy and hassle-free.

He’s also 53 years old.

Stratman represents a burgeoning group of baby boomers entering entrepreneurship, breaking stereotypes of 20-something trailblazers. The Kansas City-based Kauffman Foundation launched a “NewVenture for the Boomer Entrepreneur” course designed for baby boomers based on a recent study, “The Entrepreneurial Boom,” that showed “Americans between the ages of 55 and 64 had a higher rate of entrepreneurial activity than those aged 20-34, averaging a rate of entrepreneurial activity roughly one-third larger than their youngest counterparts.”

In fact, the study found the 20-34 age bracket to have the lowest rates of entrepreneurial activity.

“The stereotype is that entrepreneurs are 20-somethings wearing jeans, t-shirts and tennis shoes. A baby boomer like myself starting something in the technology world is definitely not in the typical age range [that other people expect],” Stratman said. “I think people my age brings much, much more real world experience, a much more practical approach to things and probably a better network.”

Kauffman FastTrac is an entrepreneur-grooming powerhouse. Business owners in all stages of operation can participate in courses created by FastTrac to assist in developing a finely tuned business, legal, marketing and financial plan.

Stratman enrolled in Kansas City-based Kauffman Foundation’s FastTrac TechVenture program, a 10-week course designed to assist entrepreneurs in the early stages of a technology-based business venture. FastTrac also provides a course for established business-owners, GrowthVenture, and a generalized course that assists baby boomers launching businesses, NewVenture.

“One of the things they [boomers] bring is a natural affinity for business,” FastTrac Vice President Michele Markey said. “Many of these people have spent many, many years in the workforce. They come to the workplace more realistic and more prepared, and more aware of the landscape and spectrum of different things that happen in the business world.”

Markey says these boomers have the added strength of a developed network, something an entrepreneur in his 20s may lack.

“[Success] is not about filling a Rolodex or briefcase with business cards, it’s about saying, ‘Look, there’s a whole sector of expertise that I may need to draw on. As a boomer, I can’t bring that expertise to the table, but I can tap into my network for different areas of expertise that I don’t naturally bring,” Markey said.

Both NewVenture and TechVenture are designed for new entrepreneurs whose concepts need polishing. In NewVenture courses, Markey says participants learn how to do market research, determine who their competitors are, seek out niche opportunities in their market, and “define very clearly their financial, marketing, management and organization plans, and legal structure.”

“They will really define their business concept so that it’s crystal clear, so if they’re talking to someone in the traditional elevator pitch, they have a plan that is very well-defined,” Markey said.

The end goal is to determine feasibility and a business plan.

“The only real criteria that we feel is necessary is that you come with an idea. People may think they are not smart enough or don’t have enough money, and for a lot of people they think an entrepreneur is someone like Mark Zuckerberg,” Markey said. “They think they may not have something real original and they don’t have tons of money and they aren’t some genius, but that’s just not realistic or always necessary. The reality is that entrepreneurs come from every walk of life, every single age, and every demographic.”

Stratman says “Airport Life” would never have accrued the same level of success without TechVenture.

“The last class we gave investor presentations. Kauffman brought in actual investors and head people and they were like a judging panel that gave a lot of feedback and critiqued how we did,” Stratman said. “If I had gone in front of an investment group not having known what I learned in that class, I would have gotten laughed out of the room.”

Kauffman has identified this growing demographic of entrepreneurs, and Markey expects this trend to continue.  But life experience and business know-how aside, why are people launching business in their later years?

The economy. Markey says the recession caused many baby boomers to become unemployed or underemployed, so that business ownership becomes a more realistic source of income.

“Boomers are looking at 401ks and they are not at the level they had anticipated, despite their best efforts. A lot of these boomers are saying, ‘I need to work longer. I’m going to be in the workforce 15 or 20 years longer than I planned and I want it to be on my terms,” Markey said.

Many boomers are also facing retirement and want to fulfill a passion, as in the case of Stratman. His advice to entrepreneurs: you’ll have a lot of all-nighters, so you have to love what you’re doing. Also, stick to what you know.

“You’re going to work so hard when you start a business, that if you don’t have a really passionate issue, or something really that is important to yourself, I think you just get burned out. Try to find something that you know a lot about and then you don’t mind putting in all those hours,” Stratman said.

FastTrac NewVenture for the Boomer Entrepreneur completed its 10-week pilot program on Thursday. Markey says Kauffman FastTrac plans to extend a pilot program to New York. Future boomer NewVenture programs will be available through some Kauffman affiliates for a $700 course fee.

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