Based on the way startups are covered in the media today, it’s easy to feel like all founders are in their teens or 20s. Stories abound of young millionaires and entrepreneur teenagers, but that’s only part of the picture. There are plenty of entrepreneurs out there who found their “big ideas” later in life, founding companies that, in some instances, last well beyond their years.
Here are six entrepreneurs who got their start later in life and prove that success is a possibility at any age:
1. Leo Goodwin, GEICO
GEICO, or the Government Employee’s Insurance Company, is now a well-known car insurance brand with well-known advertising figures. But before the Gecko, the Caveman or Maxwell, GEICO was the idea of Leo Goodwin. Working as an accountant in San Antonio, Texas, in the 1930’s, Goodwin realized that insurance needed an overhaul. Why weren’t companies just dealing with customers directly, saving all the money that traditionally went to brokers?
In 1936, at the age of 50, Leo founded GEICO in Washington, D.C. In a departure from most businessmen of the day, he worked closely with his wife Lillian in running the company. By the end of the year, GEICO had 12 people on staff and 3,700 policies in force. Today, GEICO employs over 27,000 people and has over 14 million policyholders.
2. Harland David Sanders, Kentucky Fried Chicken
Col. Sanders did not start out as anyone’s idea of a successful businessman. He lost his father at an early age, quarreled extensively with his stepfather, and was fired from multiple jobs, even losing his job as a lawyer after a courtroom brawl with his own client. However, he was determined to never give up, and this trait led to his eventual success.
While working at a service station in Corbin, Ky., Sanders gained local popularity for his delicious chicken recipe. After the Corbin station was destroyed by a fire, Sanders had the location rebuilt as a motel and 140-seat restaurant. In 1952, at the age of 62, Sanders franchised his “Kentucky Fried Chicken” for the first time. Today, KFC has over 18,800 outlets in 118 different countries and territories.
3. Robert Noyce, Intel
After earning his doctorate in physics from MIT, Robert Noyce found work as a research engineer, eventually ending up at Beckman Instruments. In 1957, he and seven others left Beckman and founded the Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation. While he enjoyed some success there, he eventually left with Gordon Moore. Together, they founded Intel when Noyce was 41.
Noyce was considered the visionary of the company and treated staff like family. He declined the lavish benefits that most CEOs received, and kept the company less structured and more relaxed. While at Intel, he oversaw the invention of the microprocessor, an innovation that revolutionized computer technology and forms the foundation of the machines we still use today.
4. Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn
Surely a company like LinkedIn, a major social network, was founded by a youngster, right? Not at all! Reid Hoffman struggled with what to do after he graduated from Stanford. He decided to work, but to do so strategically, mapping out a plan of what he would need to learn before he started his own company.
When he first started on his own, he founded a networking site called Socialnet, believing that having a great matching algorithm would guarantee success. He tried advertising his new site through magazines and newspapers, but never found traction with the idea. In the end, he left and joined PayPal before leaving his position with the company in 2002 to co-found LinkedIn. Hoffman was 35 when he founded the company and 43 when it went public.
5. Wally Blume, Denali Flavors
If the thought of tomato-flavored ice cream turns your stomach, you’re not alone. Wally Blume had a successful 20-year career, but knew he had to move on when his boss decided to move forward with that crazy idea. In 1995, in his mid-50s, he started his own ice cream company, Denali Flavors, where he created the famous Moose Tracks flavor.
Today, this dairy treat brings in $80 million a year alone through licensing agreements. Denali now has over 40 flavors, and Blume is still going strong at the age of 70.
6. Carol Gardner, Zelda Wisdom
When you’re 52, newly divorced, broke and depressed, you’d think that the last thing on your mind would be starting a company. Then again, it might be just what the doctor ordered.
After getting a dog at her therapist’s recommendation, Carol Gardner won a local Christmas card contest with a picture of the dog and a funny quip. The win inspired Gardner to start a greeting card company, which she named after her dog, Zelda. In 2010, Zelda Wisdom was valued at roughly $50 million, showing that you truly never know where your next great idea might come from.
Running a business isn’t easy — it takes hard work and discipline to reach success. As a result, it should be unsurprising that, many times, it’s the older and wiser among us who are better at navigating that road. So don’t count yourself out, no matter what your age. Success can come to anyone at any time.
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