Twenty years ago Carol Gardner had what she calls “a bad case of the three Ds — depression, divorce and debt”, after a failed property investment and a marriage breakdown. Unsure if she would get a job after years out of the workforce, the former advertising executive came up with the idea of putting a Santa outfit on her bulldog, Zelda, and sending the photo to Christmas card manufacturers. That went well, so she took more Zelda cards to a trade show, and sold out within hours.
In 2016, the last time figures were made public, her company, Zelda Wisdom, generated $50m in annual sales. It has become a global business that licenses images of Zelda — now the third bulldog to be given the name — for use on calendars, books and more.
Ms Gardner, now in her 70s, credits her success to starting at a relatively advanced age, which meant she could bring with her a wealth of experience and connections from her previous job as an advertising creative director. When she needed a photographer and a publicist, she called on old friends. “I was dressing up a dog and claiming this was a business,” she says. “Who else but good friends would work with me?”
Her story runs counter to common assumptions. Thanks to the better known stories of successful entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, who started very young, many people believe the most successful entrepreneurs are also the youngest.
Yet a recent and comprehensive study does not bear this out. Research published this year by the US National Bureau of Economic Research, a private, non-partisan research organisation, shows that businesses launched by older entrepreneurs are usually more successful.
The researchers used numerous methods to identify potentially high-growth firms as well as collecting data for growth for each of the companies they studied, but no matter what metric they emphasised, they found businesses launched by people aged 45 to 59 achieved more success than companies started by younger founders.
The NBER research bears out similar findings from startups.co.uk, an online resource for UK entrepreneurs, which reported in 2017 that just 9 per cent of small business owners were under age 35.
“There’s a longstanding and commonly held view that the most successful entrepreneurs are young and that they are particularly capable of achieving great success,” says Javier Miranda, of the US Census Bureau, who produced the NBER research with Pierre Azoulay and Daniel Kim of MIT’s Sloan School of Management and Benjamin Jones of Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. “This is largely groupthink. A founder at age 50 is approximately twice as likely [to achieve] upper-tail employment growth compared to a founder at age 30.”
The NBER research defined entrepreneurial success by measures such as whether a start-up owned a patent, increased sales, created employment, gave its backers a profitable exit such as a trade sale or initial public offering, or received venture capital backing.
A founder at age 50 is approximately twice as likely [to achieve] upper-tail employment growth compared to a founder at age 30
On the subject of VC backing, Mr Miranda adds that while the young enjoy a disproportionate share of investors’ attention, those in the 45-55 age range who are lucky enough to win early-stage investment tend to do better.
The researchers did not attempt to explore why older entrepreneurs were more successful, but the paper did refer to other studies that showed “human capital”, including the acquisition of relevant market and technical knowledge, can predict entrepreneurial success.
That ability to draw on industry connections and experience is one thing 59-year-old, UK-based, serial software entrepreneur Jonathan Papworth credits for the success of his latest venture, Person Centred Software.
He says the idea for the business — which enables workers in care homes to save time by accessing and reporting treatment-related information from their mobile devices — came from working in his previous start-up, which was in the same field. “We knew the right senior people to meet. Because they knew us, they were willing to meet,” he says.
PCS is five years old and, according to Mr Papworth, will make at least £400,000 in pre-tax profits for the year to next May.
“It’s all down to experience,” he says. “This is my most successful venture yet.”
Not all older entrepreneurs make it, with some who have sought external financial backing saying they have encountered age discrimination. This can be a particular problem for women, says Suzanne Noble, who is in her fifties and in 2014 founded Frugl, an app that shows users the best discount deals.
Ms Noble is still running UK-based Frugl in a pilot project with ScotRail, but says she was unable to secure enough financial backing from venture capitalists to make it a larger, standalone business.
Early-stage investors often appear unaware that middle-aged or older entrepreneurs can be talented. Peter Thiel, PayPal co-founder, offers investment and guidance fellowships to budding business founders, but they have to be 22 or under and to have skipped or be willing to drop out of college.
Such discriminatory attitudes have clearly not stood in the way of Ms Gardner.
“I’m 72 and I’m not through,” she says. “Business really does get better with age.”