If you’re thinking about starting your own business later in life, you’re not alone, statistically speaking. That doesn’t make it any easier.
Jules Pieri was nearing 50 when she started The Grommet a decade ago with business partner Joanne Domeniconi. The Somerville, Massachusetts, company, an online marketplace that introduces novel new products made by “makers” and small businesses, now pulls in over $50 million in annual revenue. It has helped launch brands like Fitbit, GoldieBlox and SodaStream.
But support — from the business community or society itself — was “very thin on the ground for a 48-year-old female entrepreneur” when The Grommet launched, Pieri says. As an industrial designer, she had years of executive experience at Keds, Stride Rite and Playskool, and on a personal front, her three sons were in middle or high school and required less care. Her business partner was in a similar situation. Yet, “we felt like aliens,” she says. “We were doing something that was completely out of the norm.”
Or at least, it seemed out of the norm. The myth that entrepreneurs are young is so prevalent that last year, the Harvard Business Review conducted its own research to debunk it. While most people think of “whiz kids” like Mark Zuckerberg or a youthful Bill Gates as the face of entrepreneurship, HBR discovered that the average age of a successful startup founder is 45. “If you were faced with two entrepreneurs and knew nothing about them besides their age, you would do better, on average, betting on the older one,” HBR found.
But investors definitely weren’t betting on her or Domeniconi — a situation that Pieri also blames on sexism. They were rejected by over 250 venture capitalists when seeking financing for The Grommet between 2008 and 2012. Pieri says investors couldn’t see past their appearance to the thriving marketplace she was building.
“I look like a soccer mom from Darien, Connecticut — I’m not,” she says. “I grew up in the urban jungle of Detroit.” When she was trying to raise capital, “I was told I was too old, too blonde, too female to be a CEO and to merit venture capital,” she says, pausing for a few seconds to remember. “And I was told that by somebody who was trying to help me.”
Despite the hurdles, Pieri persisted — something she advises anyone who is older or female to do. ”Instead of being stopped by that wall I went around it,” she says, and ultimately secured a big investment by Japanese e-commerce company Rakuten, whose founder Hiroshi “Mickey” Mikitani seemed to appreciate a “tiny but fierce” company. Read Pieri’s excited blog post from 2012 here about that momentous day for The Grommet. Two years ago, Ace Hardware bought out Rakuten’s shares, which Pieri described as a “happy event for all.”
While her company has achieved success, Pieri laments the fact that it still isn’t much easier for older women, or just women in general. Last year, as pointed out by Forbes, the men who started Juul, an e-cigarette company, raised $12.8 billion — about $10 billion more than all female founders combined, who only took in $2.88 billion of funding. While there has been some progress, women still get just about 2 percent of all VC. “The stats are still the same,” she says.
[Related: This Online Tool Aims to Help Women Find VC]
And it’s a shame, Pieri adds. If there is any advice she has for women contemplating entrepreneurship later in life, it’s this: “You will be faster, braver and more effective than your younger self.” Why? Because “being decisive, tenacious and inspirational are critical founder skills…and these abilities are all greatly shaped and enhanced by experience.”
In fact, it’s “1000 percent” better to start a business later in life, Pieri says. In her case, she saw a need for The Grommet while at Playskool, when she realized that the most innovative products would die on the vine if big-box stores like Target, Kmart and Walmart weren’t interested. She partnered with Domeniconi to bring The Grommet to life as a product-launch platform, where the discriminating staff would scour unique new products made by entrepreneurs and unveil the ones they think are the best of the best.
In the early days, “we could move fast and take risks because we had professional experience behind us,” she says. “We didn’t have to worry that the business would take us down and make us unemployable.” And as late-blooming startup founders, they both had supportive families “that provided emotional balance that we would never have had 20 years earlier,” she says.
So starting a business later in life? Not a piece of cake — but not crazy or unusual either. And it might even be a smart idea. “That is not a narrative you see reported in the press,” she says. Until now.