Never Too Late: More Older Adults Sold On Entrepreneurship

Apr 1, 2014
Originally published on April 3, 2014 6:57 am

If you've ever been driven to rage and despair trying to pry open one of those plastic blister packs, Paul Tasner says it doesn't have to be that way. According to the 68-year-old Tasner, all it would take is for more products to use the packaging he's developed for his company, Pulpworks.

As you might guess from the name, it specializes in packaging made from pulp — from paper, cardboard, even sugarcane fiber — that's molded to fit a product.

"I just loved the idea of turning [what is] basically garbage into packaging," Tasner says.

His story isn't that unusual. Increasingly, older adults are continuing to work and some have decided to work for themselves. In 2012, nearly a quarter of all new businesses were started by people between the ages of 55 and 64.

Tasner got the idea for Pulpworks in 2011 after his position was eliminated at a company that made soap and home cleaning products. As senior director of operations there, he oversaw the supply chain from start to finish.

"I have spent almost my entire life doing exactly what we are doing here with Pulpworks," Tasner says. "Although, I've done it for employers, not for myself."

Now, Tasner works close to his home in San Rafael, Calif., north of San Francisco. He's taken on a partner, a female architect a couple of decades younger than he is. They have a few customers, companies that make hand sanitizer, lip balm and children's shoes.

Business creation by older Americans grew more than 60 percent between 1996 and 2012, according to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Dane Stangler, the foundation's vice president of research and policy, says that's partly because of the aging of the huge boomer generation.

He says technology has also made it easier to start a business, including going online to incorporate the business, among other things.

"It's a lot easier to have mobile payments done," Stangler says. "And it's increased business creation for this demographic."

Older entrepreneurs have some advantages that don't have much to do with technology, says Edward Rogoff, chairman of the department of management at Baruch College.

They have more money and a network of contacts they can turn into orders or customers. "They bring a lot to the table," Rogoff says.

The big disadvantage that an older entrepreneur faces, he says, is that someone who starts a business when they're older "can't risk the ranch."

Or as the AARP's Debbie Banda puts it: "Never, never, never use your retirement savings to start that business."

"If that business goes belly up, you've lost your nest egg," says Banda, interim vice president for financial affairs at the AARP. "And you've lost it at a time in your life when you have very few years to recoup."

About half of new businesses don't last more than five years. This month, the AARP is partnering for the second time with the U.S. Small Business Administration to provide training for older, would-be entrepreneurs.

Banda says the "speed mentoring" session is very popular. It's a little like speed dating, except in this case a new entrepreneur sits down with a successful small business owner from the community and gets some quick tips.

Paul Tasner's had mentors, as well as a network of suppliers and manufacturers he knows from his previous career. What he doesn't have yet are investors. He and his partner have financed the business from their savings and it's held them back.

"Even though we're a low overhead business, there are still a lot of expenses associated with engaging customers, building prototypes, trade shows," Tasner says.

He says he doesn't have the capital to do everything he'd like to, "so we pick and choose. We look for customers that are closer to home, simply because it's cheaper."

Pulpworks isn't turning a profit yet. But Tasner says he wouldn't trade this experience for anything.

"Entrepreneurship is infinitely more rewarding and it's infinitely harder, than working for someone else," Tasner says, "but I wish I had started doing it earlier."

Though like thousands of older Americans, he's decided it's still not too late.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. We've been hearing about the changing nature of retirement for the past few weeks. And with people living longer, they've got decisions to make about what to do in retirement. Increasingly, older adults continue to work. Some decide to work for themselves. In 2012, nearly a quarter of all new businesses were started by people between the ages of 55 and 64. As NPR's Ina Jaffe reports, older entrepreneurs have some advantages but they also face greater risks.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Comedian Larry David is rarely at a loss for words. But on an episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," he meets his match in one of those impenetrable plastic blister packs.

(SOUNDBITE OF YELLING)

JAFFE: We've all been there. But it doesn't have to be that way, says 68-year-old Paul Tasner. All it would take is more products using the packaging that he's developed.

PAUL TASNER: This is our package made out of pulp, the same material that you're familiar with: the old egg carton.

JAFFE: Though slimmer and sleeker.

TASNER: And these cavities are designed to hold the object for sale.

JAFFE: And hold it tightly so that you don't have to hermetically seal it in see-through plastic. Tasner's business is called Pulpworks. It's in San Rafael, California, north of San Francisco. He got the idea for it after his position was eliminated at a company that made soap and home cleaning products. He was senior director of operations there, overseeing the supply chain from start to finish.

TASNER: I have spent almost my entire life doing exactly what we are doing here with Pulpworks, although I've done it for employers not for myself.

JAFFE: He has a partner now: a female architect a couple of decades younger than he is. And they have a few customers: they package hand sanitizer, lip balm and children's shoes. And the pulp used in the packages can come from a lot of different sources: recycled newspaper, cardboard, even sugar cane fiber.

TASNER: I just loved the idea of turning basically garbage into packaging. Just seems so cool to me, you know, such a gentle thing on the planet.

JAFFE: A lot of older entrepreneurs hope to do well by doing good, says Dane Stangler, the vice president of research and policy at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. He says between 1996 and 20-12, business creation by older Americans grew more than 60 percent. Partly that's due to the sheer size of the aging boomer generation. But he says technology has also made it easier to start a business.

DANE STANGLER: It's just a lot easier to go on line and incorporate a business. And it's a lot easier to have mobile payments done. And its increased businesses creation for this demographic.

JAFFE: And older entrepreneurs have some advantages that have nothing much to do with technology, says Edward Rogoff, professor of entrepreneurship at the City University of New York.

EDWARD ROGOFF: Older entrepreneurs have more resources, they do have more money to start a business. They have a network of contacts which they can leverage into orders or customers for their business. So, they bring a lot to the table.

JAFFE: The big disadvantage faced by an older entrepreneur?

ROGOFF: Is that someone who starts a business when they're older can't risk the ranch.

DEBBIE BANDA: Never, never, never use your retirement savings to start that business.

JAFFE: Says Debbie Banda, interim vice president for financial affairs at the AARP.

BANDA: If that business goes belly up you've lost your nest egg. And you've lost it at a time in your life when you have very few years to recoup that nest egg.

JAFFE: And about half of new businesses don't last more than five years. So, this month, the AARP is partnering for the second time with the Small Business Administration to provide training sessions for older would-be entrepreneurs.

BANDA: One that is very popular is what we call speed mentoring. And it's a version of, you know, the speed dating, where people get to come into a room and sit down with some successful small business owners from their own community and get some quick tips from them.

JAFFE: Paul Tasner's had mentors. He also has a network of suppliers and manufacturers he knows from his previous career. What he doesn't have yet are investors. He and his partner have financed the business from their savings. And it's held them back.

TASNER: Even though we are a low overhead business, there's still a lot of expenses associated with engaging customers, building prototypes, trade shows. And we don't have the money to afford to do all of that. So, we pick and choose. We look for customers that are closer to home, simply because it's cheaper to engage those customers.

JAFFE: And Pulpworks isn't turning a profit yet. But Tasner says he wouldn't trade this experience for anything.

TASNER: I have to say entrepreneurship is infinitely more rewarding and it's infinitely harder, than working for somebody else. But I wish I had started doing it earlier to be honest.

JAFFE: Though, like thousands of older Americans, he's decided it's still not too late. Ina Jaffe, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.