Friday, June 12, 2009

Boomer Biz

80,000 Americans turn 60 every single day*

I look at the financial mayhem that just befell the world, and I know that it is hitting all parts of society hard.

I think the style of entrepreneurship that I've written about here is especially suited to boomers. I think that there is a clear need for information about slow paced startups that offer not only a realistic return but importantly, a path for the new entrepreneur to make a contribution to their communities. There is a real potential for creating millions of new small businesses from within this demographic. Scaled right and planned appropriately, this path could offer many of my boomer peers additional financial security and a chance to make a difference.

This is not the only demographic that needs help, but I think the tools and approach of sustainable work fit this bunch the best.

Plus, as a fellow traveler well into boomer-hood, I don't have to be polite to my peers. I get to tell it like it is.

Taking the time to research what you love is the first step. Let the research take you into challenging directions, not the same-old, same-old. Learn from the wonderful young people and all the things that we're inclined to run from. Embrace it. Take the opportunity to slow down and make changes that utilize the new digital and cultural tools that are appearing. Then hurry up and try them out.

Are you going to get rich with your boomer startup? It happens, but the strongest likelihood is that if you plan it right, you'll be able to make a sustainable job for yourself going forward. One that won't be dependent on distant corporate managers or the vagaries of the specific geography you live in.

If you team up to market yourself with like-minded peers of all ages, you can bolster the chances of success for all of you.

It does not take a lot of money to start most new enterprises. It takes the kind of skills and knowledge that most boomers have, but often don't value: time, patience, deep understanding of a specific subject, the ability to see beyond the immediate crisis.

Is Boomer Biz for everyone? Surely not. Is it a viable option that many of us should be exploring? You bet. Boomers and self enterprise are a perfect match!

I was just at a meeting of the Inventor and Entrepreneur Club in Vernon County, WI. This club is run by one of the best economic development pros I am privileged to know, Sue Noble. There were about 50 people attending. All were looking for new ideas to help them launch or improve their new enterprises. As they went around the room telling their own stories, the new ideas flowed and the inspiration just kept getting more compelling. Certainly there were young people in the group, but the vast majority were boomers starting new businesses or boomers just beginning to explore a way to put a toe into that water.

It was so cool to see peers my age just flat out excited about learning new skills and trying new things. They were challenging themselves. They were alive. It was just a really fun room to be in.

If you are a boomer take the time to start acquiring the skills to create your own small enterprise. Done right, it may be the best security you can create for yourself in this economy. More importantly, we can help create a new, better and more secure economy that benefits everyone in society.

It's not hard. It's just new. Deep breath. You can do it.

Vernon County, WI Economic Development

*Fast Company June 2009 p. 103 .

Friday, June 05, 2009

Smaller. Cheaper. Faster. How about for rural economic development?

Inc. Magazine has just given their June cover story over to Paul Graham and his wonderful Y Combinator startup machine.

I've written about Paul Graham a number of times in the past and linked to his sites, which I'll do again at the end of this post. You should know about Mr. Graham and his model for doing - not talking about - actually doing, economic development.

The cover story is titled "The Start-Up Guru. Paul Graham has launched 145 companies. His formula? Smaller. Cheaper. Faster."

In a great story written by Max Chalkin, he opens with the this position: "Graham's system generates scores of bold ideas, churns out dozens of new companies, and creates hundreds of jobs - for a lot less money than you might think."

At its core, Y Combinator is a venture capital fund, operating with small ball investments of $10K or so. More importantly, Paul Graham trains his startups to make things people want and change rapidly as they learn from their mistakes. He doesn't have any high finance back-office structure to accomplish all this. Y Combinator runs out of Graham's home office. Yet he has generated more than 500 jobs with his startups over the last couple of years and this job creation pace is accelerating as his startups mature and are acquired.

The Inc. Magazine piece is too short to do justice to what Mr. Graham is pulling off. It also doesn't give much background about his philosophy, which you can learn more about through his essays (below). Suffice it to say that he builds his entrepreneurs into realistic enterprises ready to face the world. A quote I really loved from the piece sums it up: "Running a startup is like being punched in the face repeatedly. But working for a large company is like being waterboarded."

OK. All of the startups Graham and Y Combinator do are software related. Logical. Graham is a Silicon Valley guy. However, here is where I would introduce my question. Why can't this model be adapted for all kinds of industries and geographies? I would posit that all that would need changing is the exit strategies for investors/stakeholders.

In fact I'm proposing just this kind of model in my day job doing rural economic development. I will say very specifically that the move toward rural small business development highly favors boomers and knowledge workers, typically people wearing both hats.

Why can't we launch many small, fast, fun, smart new farms and ag processing enterprises? Why can't we make training and tools and small ball investments available that will allow people in rural and urban areas to tie into each others economic and cultural self interests in ways that benefit both?

Certainly there is a vast structure of entrepreneurship talk therapy out there. What's needed even more is strategic and financial participation, as well as launch help for farmers in transition, new farmers, and cool new processing facilities emerging to meet the rapidly evolving new world of regional food economics.

My new friends at U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development have shown me a powerful organizational structure that can be used to accomplish these kind of goals. Adapting that structure to Y Combinator like 21st century speed, nimbleness, and adapt-as-you-go enterprise training seem like a perfect marriage for doing effective rural economic development.

With my new friends, especially Mark Olson of Renaissance Farm, we hope to make Iowa County Wisconsin a 763 square mile business incubator for progressive, effective rural economic development. We will be having a roll-out meeting for regional stakeholders to discuss this proposal on June 15 from 3 to 5 PM. eMail me for details if you have an interest.

It's high time we put the coolest startup smarts (Y Combinator) into projects that build our rural communities, grow more farmers and create a growing network of sustainable food infrastructure.

Smaller. Faster. Cheaper. Yum!

Y Combinator

Paul Graham essays

Renaissance Farm