May 12, 2020

E05: Ageless Startup, Author Rick Terrien

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On this episode of Succession Stories, I explored next generation entrepreneurship from a different angle with Rick Terrien, author of Ageless Startup. After selling his last company, Rick pondered the question of what’s next. His experience became the inspiration for a book encouraging entrepreneurship at any age. If you’ve been contemplating your next, I think you’ll enjoy this discussion about ageless entrepreneurship.

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Ageless Startup: Start a Business at Any Age

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Full Transcript

Laurie Barkman (00:02):

Welcome to Succession Stories. On this episode, we’ll explore next generation entrepreneurship from a different angle. I’m joined by Rick Terrien, a lifelong entrepreneur and author of a new book called Ageless Startup. After selling his last company, Rick pondered the question that many dread as they move through their career. The question of what’s next. His experience became the inspiration for a book encouraging entrepreneurship at any age. You might be surprised to know that more than half of all the startups in the US are launched by people 45 and older with the majority being 55 and older. Another estimate is that there are 25 million people looking to become entrepreneurs who are over 40. Now is an unprecedented time. Maybe it’s time to focus on your what’s next, and also an opportunity to support what comes next for our economy and our communities. If you’ve been contemplating what’s next, I think you’ll enjoy our discussion about ageless entrepreneurship.

Laurie Barkman (00:58):

Rick, thanks so much for joining me on the Succession Stories podcast. I’m excited to speak with you today and learn about your book called Ageless Startup. You described yourself as an ageless entrepreneur. What does that mean?

Rick Terrien (01:13):

Well, it, it comes from a phrase that says making a difference is ageless. It’s from the Purpose Prize and I’m honored to be a fellow of that group. In the book, there is stuff for young people, but I think it generally focuses on people in the second half of life. I start counting that at 40. It’s an arbitrary number, but 40 to 69-70 is probably a good bet. People in the second half of life, I do consider that and I think there is a chance for these ageless entrepreneurs to make a significant difference.

Laurie Barkman (01:45):

So what inspired you to write your book?

Rick Terrien (01:48):

Well, I didn’t think my peers – and I’m in the ageless group – had enough options to thrive in the workplace as they aged. Ageism certainly plays a role in all of this as a subtext, but in fact, as our organizations shrink and as organizations get faster and more nimble, they’re pushing out a lot of older people with higher salaries. There needs to be more options for people to not just see this as a negative, to see a time of transition in the second half of life into something better and stronger. And so new ways that that can contribute to industries they love and communities that they’re devoted to.

Laurie Barkman (02:26):

So you seem pretty passionate about that and writing a book is a significant undertaking. I know you also write about things on a more current basis. You wrote a blog post recently about the pandemic and what this might mean for people in terms of their career and the opportunity for phased retirements, I think is what you called it. Why do you think this is an important message? Do you think more people are going to start their own business as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Rick Terrien (03:01):

I think it’s inevitable. This is the second or third one of these big recessions I’ve been through and it takes a long time to come back. The underlying organizations will change even when they’re ones that were leaders in. They will change just by default with what we’re facing as in a new economy. So I think that there’s a whole lot of room for people to reassess and find new ways to begin to make themselves more resilient and find new ways to contribute to things that they’re passionate about. As I said, I think the organizations and the employees coming out of these, and that could be for profit or non-profit are going to have to be a lot more nimble and more resilient, and a big part of that is entrepreneurship. So yes, I do think this phased retirement, I didn’t coin that phrase but I wrote it, it is a planned strategy to

Rick Terrien (03:55):

live the paid employment that you currently have. So making a smooth transition out of this rather than an abrupt one and just getting tossed out or walking out the door, one or the other. They’re both, those are both bad when you do things abruptly, especially in a troubled times like these. So the idea of integrating a phased retirement where you can do it in stages, take the time to start your own new enterprise. You can start small. It’s better to start small. I think that that’s the new paradigm, especially for older workers. It isn’t a negative. It’s a positive. It gives us more opportunities to make new contributions. It’s just using the time to get them set up correctly. I think the world’s going to need a lot more skilled people and organizations to support what comes out of this and I think that our leadership of older workers is one that can drive that paradigm.

Laurie Barkman (04:46):

Do you have a sense of how many people are interested in entrepreneurship when they’re in that, as you call it, that second phase of life? Is this a few thousand? Is it a couple million? How many people are we talking about?

Rick Terrien (04:59):

Of course there’s approximately a hundred million people that are between the ages of 40 and 70. It’s north of a hundred million, probably about 115 million. The most recent study was done by and 25% of that group said that they would like to start their own small enterprise. That’s 25 million people at a minimum, and that was before this mess we’re in right now. I think it’s a big number, I think it’s a significant number. I think a lot of people didn’t answer yes to that question because they were afraid of entrepreneurship at the time. Now it’s something that’s a strong consideration for all of us, so the number, Laurie, I would think is at least 25 million and probably north of that.

Laurie Barkman (05:45):

You’ve mentioned people being fearful or scared and I can empathize with that at this time. There’s a lot of unknowns in our economy and making a significant change like starting your own business is already inherently scary for people. In your book, you provide insights as to getting started and how to think about it, and taking your time with it. I think as you said, it doesn’t happen overnight. Is there a path to entrepreneurship that you recommend as a way for people to put their toe in the water and make it less scary?

Rick Terrien (06:17):

There mantra around entrepreneurship generally is go fast, test the market, get out there and do it as fast as you possibly can. I tend to do that differently, and especially for people in the second half of life, I say to start small and to start slow. It’s going to take more time than you think. It takes time just to get everybody wired up, getting new organizations wired up. So my mantra is absolutely do it, but don’t expect fast returns. Don’t look for this to pay the rent. This is your next career. So my pathway into these, generally what I do is take a much slower path and think through things, and get it right the first time. It’s better to get it right than to be first.

Laurie Barkman (07:03):

Rick, do you have any examples of entrepreneurs that you’ve worked with that have started slow and what are some ways that they’ve gotten started? What would be a good way to, if someone’s going from thinking about it, to doing it. Is it maybe a service business? Is it something that they’re doing as a hobby and that they want to turn it into a career? How might they go from A to B?

Rick Terrien (07:29):

Sure. And so it can be all of the things that you just described. I think one of the things, no matter what our jobs are, we’re really good at something. It could be landscaping, it could be running a service based company. We’re all good at something and there are other people in our communities and those communities can be scattered across the globe. There are other people in our work communities that need and could prosper from our advice. So the easiest, lowest tech way is to set yourself up as a one person operation, as a consultant. And then knit together a community that really could benefit by your advice. I’m a recovering economic developer and we used to sort of scoff at one person businesses that were called lifestyle businesses and none of us wanted to see those kinds of businesses. I’m a heretic in that I really love one person businesses.

Rick Terrien (08:21):

It turns out, right now in the United States there are 32 million active businesses. According to the IRS, 25 million of those 32 million are one person businesses. That’s a really big number. It’s really a success story behind the scenes that you can thrive and prosper as a one person organization. It doesn’t mean you have to stay there, but it’s a perfectly legitimate place to start and plant yourself. That’s the direction that I would suggest for that answer is as a small one person lightning fast consulting platform to help a community or help communities you love or markets that you know and love.

Laurie Barkman (09:05):

And that’s not that different from entrepreneurs who have a business plan that we’re putting together. You still need to know what problem you’re solving, what solution you’re providing, and who your target market is. So whether you’re a business with a team or you’re a single individual, you still need to do that legwork. So that makes a lot of sense.

Rick Terrien (09:28):

So I’d like to quote. It’s in the book and it’s an interview with a friend of mine. His name is Glen Ford and Glen had a storied career with Fortune 100 companies. He was a Rockstar, and is a rock star. But as he’s pivoted over, and we’re working together on a food project here in Pittsburgh, but I really liked to quote Glenn’s comments on that very thing. He says, “Please jump in. The water’s fine. And your contribution is needed. Don’t take small business for granted because you were once a big company executive, while small business may have less revenue than your previous role, it’s a dramatically different and harder in entrepreneurship. You have to create the momentum in a company and be able to fend off reputations created and decades of work that came before you.” It is hard work. There is nothing simple or easy about small business, but it’s also something we can all do. This is not hard. This is just new.

Laurie Barkman (10:22):

Yeah. So getting over the fear and getting started and taking those small steps can help people to achieve something that they’re really proud of and that makes them happy. Even in this time when things feel scary and I guess there’s a quote out there that in difficult times and the mother of innovation is sometimes from things you don’t expect, and can this be one of those times for people considering maybe they were already considering a change in their career and this is going to give them some time to really think about that.

Rick Terrien (10:52):

Exactly right. And this is a very difficult time. I was thinking back to one of the last ones that I went through. I was starting a brand new job in the December 1st of 2008. It was right in the teeth of that recession and I remember that day they declared that recession and the stock market fell just ton in terms of percentage points when they still were all referred back to it. And I thought the world was coming to an end, and I was starting to a brand new economic development job of all things. And as it turned out, some of the very best things in my life have happened since that moment and it was fighting through and doing things innovatively and a more entrepreneurial way of looking at things differently, trying things new. The hardest thing for entrepreneurs in my opinion, or people considering entrepreneurship.

Rick Terrien (11:43):

it’s not the writing of the business plans and all of the things that come and are needed in this process. It’s giving yourself permission. Most people, especially in the second of life, think that entrepreneurship is some scary platform for 20 year old future billionaires. It’s not. It’s all of us as skilled workforce leaders, one person businesses. There is a way you do need to give yourself permission and that’s a big part of this book is: we aren’t alone. There’s a lot of us in there chance to make major contributions to these industries and communities we love. So that permission piece is a big one.

Laurie Barkman (12:20):

I think that’s a really great way to summarize it, Rick. You know, giving yourself permission. I personally identify with that, so that really resonates with me, and hopefully it will for our listeners too. You are an entrepreneur, you’ve been an entrepreneur for the majority of your career. Your book and your passion about helping others achieve what they’re looking to through entrepreneurship. I think it’s brought you here today. I was hoping we could rewind a little bit. Can you tell us a bit about your experience as an entrepreneur? You had created a successful family business and you ran that company, I believe, with your wife, right? For 25 years? So wanted to learn a little bit more about your company and your experience as a founder.

Rick Terrien (13:03):

Sure. Yeah. We did run it for 25 years together. My wife and I, she probably would call that 50 years. It was a small business that I found something broken, a piece of the market at the time I was in college, I started it with a bowl of loose change on my college dresser drawer. We started a company that became known as banner graphics. It ran for 25 years. We served customers on at least five continents. We served associations and universities and businesses, United Ways, YMCAs. It was a really fun business. We owned a small piece of the market. It was a piece of the market that nobody else wanted or could do at the time and it was a really successful, enjoyable run. We raised our kids in the middle of it and I sold that in 1997 when it was 25 years old to a trusted and beloved vendor. I saw that same vendor, my friend who we sold it to 15 years after that, so it was still going at 40 years. So I’ve got a 40 a 20 and a 10 under my belt. That was my 40 and it was really enjoyable, it’s still could be going for all I know, but I lost track of it at 40.

Laurie Barkman (14:20):

okay. That’s a pretty good track record. A 40 a 20 and a 10.

Rick Terrien (14:24):

Well thank you. And I’m working on the five right now, so I need to round it out. We were in the graphics business, we were making banners at the time, and it was before computers, if anybody remembers that, and into the early stages of the computer era. And I recognize that this was something, the production of these banners was something that anybody with enough money could throw at it and buy big computers eventually and break into that business. And I would just be fighting for market share with people with more money than I’d had. But what was important to me about that, as I was able to transition the best banner printers in the entire world were made by Hewlett Packard at the time. And Hewlett Packard was ordering banners for their business meetings from our business, not making it with their own equipment, but the time was coming. And I am glad that I transitioned. I generally search out things that other people don’t want to do. I sell businesses, I generally sell them for sabbatical time, took a year or two, and figured out what was coming next and started the next one, which is where we got all of our intellectual property and all the awards.

Laurie Barkman (15:36):

Well, tell me a little bit about that. I’m curious, you’ve developed several innovations and I was looking to hear which innovation you’re most proud of and why.

Rick Terrien (15:45):

So there’s a number of them. I think the one I would pick, the business we started, I started to help co-found after the graphics business, is I went into industrial fluid care and treatment and remediation and it had been something of a family trade. I learned a little bit about this from my dad. I invented it designed a system for skinning contaminants off the surface of industrial fluids. We all think of pollution is stuff floating on rivers and lakes. It’s also a tremendous problem inside manufacturing plants. And there was, it was a broken messy system. Again, a place nobody wanted to work. I designed a system for skimming those contaminants off and then a couple of other different devices for separating those contaminants from the source fluids. And it ended up saving as we’re talking now, it’s kept tens of millions of gallons of oil out of the waste stream. I can’t count the number of tons of carbon out of the atmosphere. I don’t know how to count them, but globally relevant amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere for the last 20 years. That business is now 20 years old. I dropped out at 10, but it’s still going strong. I’m very proud of the environmental and economic impacts, the skimming and separation system. I’m very proud of that.

Laurie Barkman (17:12):

And you should be. And before the show I had asked you if you had any favorite questions that you’d like to ask other people and I think it makes a lot of sense to me now why you answered me what you did, which is “what’s broken that pisses you off.” And you said that’s your favorite question. Makes sense to me. Because you talked about some examples where there was a missing link in the market and you created a solution that really satisfied that need that something was broken, right?

Rick Terrien (17:43):

In fact, I was searching through looking for some background information a while back and I found a newspaper about our graphics company and then a secondary one 20 years later. A newspaper article out of a major city newspaper and the title of both, unbeknownst to the authors of either, was it said, Rick Terrien does work nobody else wants to do. I do think you find things that piss you off. This idea of, of following your passion can be a false mantra. You can follow your passion right off a cliff. You’ve got to solve a problem. Somebody has to pay you to fix something and something that makes you angry and that you’re upset with and that you know can be done better, puts you in the driver’s seat to create a solution for that. The idea is to find things that are broken, and people will pay you that money for it and you have to get somebody to pay you for this.

Rick Terrien (18:40):

If it’s not repeatable, it’s not sustainable. So finding problems and if you can’t find enough problems to work on, you’re not looking hard enough. There are a lot out there. Everything can be improved and continuously improved. That’s the basis for new small businesses is finding things that are broken and fixing them

Laurie Barkman (19:00):

And that’s also the basis of your book, for people to get started and start looking around at the world and what signals are coming regarding problems that need to be solved and what skills they have, what interests they have, to try to meet those needs with solutions. I think it ties together really well. All that you’re saying paints a picture of the Ageless Startup and gives us of that mission for what people should be thinking about.

Rick Terrien (19:25):

Right, and I think that especially senior executives who have been running businesses and are looking to transition can follow their passion while working on stuff that makes them mad. They know what’s broken in their industries, they know where the problems are. They know where the people with solutions are toiling in the shadows. It’s a great time and way, place, and method to transition. This is back to this phase retirement. Reach out and start to help develop those solutions. You can transition out of an existing paid employment into something where you’re working on your own for the good of the benefit of your community or your industry.

Laurie Barkman (20:08):

Yeah. This show is for next generation entrepreneurs. I like to have people on that talk about different insights to share. And in this context, what I find so interesting is that the idea of a next generation entrepreneur is that second generation person. And so initially the concept of next generation insinuates that maybe it’s the millennial group. And I think what opened my eyes to thinking about that in a little broader context was your book, and also hearing your stories. You’re still continuing on your path of starting new things. And you mentioned it earlier, you’re starting a new initiative called Food21.

Laurie Barkman (20:48):

One of the things in your incredible background is that you’re a recognized expert in regional food systems and you’ve co-founded a couple of things regarding that. So tell us about Food21.

Rick Terrien (21:02):

Oh it’s so exciting. I just could not possibly pass this up. It fits the theme of our conversation to look around for what’s broken. I took a job as a consultant to help launch a new non-profit back in Wisconsin and it ended up focusing on the food system. As a manufacturer for most of my life, I came to learn that the piece of the food system that was most broken, in my opinion, are these regional food systems that we used to have where things were made in regions and transported shorter distances and then often in more moderate quantities. The system has been industrialized over the last decades. It served its purpose, but we’re now, especially now with this crisis we are in, we’re seeing a lot of the flaws in that food distribution system. I was asked to bring this food manufacturing systems ideas to Pittsburgh and join a group that was forming. We wrote a white paper around this called Food21 and then formed a non-profit organization. I was a team leader and founder of that group. I’m personally working on this idea of recreating models for food production and food manufacturing at smaller scales. This artisan scale. I think this region, we’re in- Pittsburgh – in Western Pennsylvania. It could become the home of contract food manufacturing once again. Food branding was invented here. Food safety was invented here. I think there’s a chance to rebuild a 21st century reinvention of that story around this region. I’m very excited about it and I’m working with a spectacular team that I really enjoy.

Laurie Barkman (22:51):

Is there a commonality in the team? Are these all people who are in that second phase of their career?

Rick Terrien (22:58):

Yes, they are. Well, the one gentleman I just was quoting from the book is a friend, Glenn Ford. Glenn led a storied career prior to this and just dove in. He’s working on it a separate part of Food 21 although we’re obviously connected. He is building a large indoor farm, an aquaponics farm. I think that that’s got a tremendous future in the world. So we’re running a lot of experiments here and seeing what works with the idea of then transferring it nationally as a model.

Laurie Barkman (23:30):

So why not take the sabbatical money and just go on the beach? Why start a venture now?

Rick Terrien (23:36):

Oh, you could do that and some people will want to do that. I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with, I just don’t think there’s enough right with it. I think that we come here and we’ve been given a gift in many cases -where are we live, and careers we’ve been able to develop. The task for us to do is to leave the campsite better than we found it. And that’s the goal that I think entrepreneurship can play. It doesn’t mean you have to push it big rocks uphill all day. You can create small businesses, match your own timelines and needs. Maybe you’re running it from the beach, run it from someplace you’d love, do it on your own timeline, but keep the contributions going. We’ve got knowledge, we’ve got networks, we’ve got know-how. It took decades to put these together and it’s a priceless gift and we need to share it where it’s incumbent on us to share it, to make the world a better place.

Laurie Barkman (24:37):

That’s beautiful. Thank you for sharing that. You’ve shared a lot of successes in your career and those are amazing things to celebrate. I’m wondering if you would also share some of the mistakes that you’ve made or encountered along the way and some of the things that you’ve learned.

Rick Terrien (24:55):

Well, the number of mistakes I’ve made do how? How much time do we have, Laurie? We have to talk a little bit about this earlier. I think the mistakes that I’ve made in terms of process have all made what comes after that better. But if there is a mistake that I can say that is easy to make and that I have made and that I regret, it’s moving too fast. We all think, oh my gosh, entrepreneurs, here we go– we’ve got to stay up all night. We got to move this thing. Here we go. We’ve got to throw everything against the wall, see what sticks. It’s always easier to do that, than it is to think through issues deeply and to learn what your gut is telling you about it. I think if I can point to mistakes that I regret, almost all of them revolve around going too fast. And I think that might be a little heretical in an entrepreneurship conversation, but my mantra is to go slow and I truly believe that. I don’t think you can go fast unless you go slow first.

Laurie Barkman (26:07):

What that probably speaks to is balance. Some decisions you do need to make quickly with the right data, with the right information. There’s always going to probably be some element of gut or heart that will drive decision making. So that is a tricky thing. But yeah, there probably are lots of times that I can think about where decisions are made too quickly, or a knee jerk reaction to something. Maybe reacting emotionally versus, more with a more logical sense around it. So I can appreciate that. One of the questions, Rick, that I like to ask everybody is if they have a favorite saying or mantra regarding entrepreneurship that you’d like to share?

Rick Terrien (26:46):

I do. It goes like this. It’s not hard. It’s just new. People are afraid of what they don’t know and they think that what is hiding behind the curtain is beyond them or too hard for them. Well, there is nothing especially hard about entrepreneurship. There are many really hard jobs in this life and an entrepreneur is not especially difficult, but it’s new. People have to recognize that if they’re comfortable in their skin, they’re going to have to try on a new skin that’s going to take new things to learn, new attitudes to accept, new challenges to pick up. And that can be a challenge. Lots of people don’t like things that are new. I don’t care what age you’re at, it’s not often something people gravitate to. But in this circumstance, and the circumstance of entrepreneurship, it is not hard. It’s just new, and you can do it.

Rick Terrien (27:45):

So to follow on that, I tell people to start small, start smart, and start right now. And then the starting small part means make a smooth transition from working for somebody else to working for yourself. The start smart part is give yourself permission and minimize your risk and maximize your value. You can do that. And that’s to start right now. Set a pace for you that’s right for your business. It can and should be slow, but it is to start right now and take those action steps. Don’t keep thinking about it. Put one foot in front of the other and get this process underway.

Rick Terrien (28:18):

I love it. I love it. Thanks for sharing that. Rick, thanks so much for joining me today on Succession Stories. I’ve really enjoyed our discussion and you’ve opened my eyes to a whole new meaning for next generation entrepreneur and I think your message about it’s not hard, it’s just new, is a really important message. I wanted to encourage our listeners to visit for more resources and links to the book, Ageless Startup.

Laurie Barkman (30:00):

Thanks for listening. I hope you enjoyed the episode. Three things before you go:

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