Don Benoit had worked as a commercial and residential heating contractor for almost three decades when he finally acted on an idea that had gnawed at him for much of his adult life.
“It was always a dream of mine to one day have a charter boat,” the 53-year-old Benoit, a Foxborough resident, said. “I grew up sailing. My folks had a summer house in Rockport and I used to sail all the time up there. I loved it, and I’ve always wanted to return to sailing and make it more a part of my life.”
Three years ago Benoit made his dream come true: He plunked down $60,000 to buy and equip a 31-foot Friendship Sloop and launched his Come Sail Away Now charter boat service in Boston Harbor.
Today, he’s not only running a charter service, he’s since branched out and purchased three more boats to shuttle passengers around Boston Harbor and to host private parties, such as pirate outings for children.
Starting a new company may seem like a young person’s game, but in fact nearly 25 percent of all businesses in America in recent years were founded by entrepreneurs between the ages of 55 and 64, said Jean Setzfand, vice president of financial security at AARP. That number is expected to increase in coming years, partly as more older people people do as Benoit and follow their dreams, partly because baby boomers want to make additional money as they head into retirement, Setzfand said.
“It’s a combination of wants and needs,” said Setzfand of later-in-life decisions to start up businesses.
Caroline Daniels, a lecturer on entrepreneurship at Babson College, refers to business people between the ages of 48 to 66 who start their own companies as “boomer-preneurs” and predicts their numbers will increase. Many of these “boomer-preneur” firms start out as self-proprietorships and then grow slowly, if at all, to include more employees, said Daniels.
Some words of caution from those boomers who’ve done it: No one should start a business without expecting it to be a lot of work, and business founders should expect their share of worries, surprises, and setbacks as they go along.
“To me, it was nerve-racking just thinking about it,” said Moira Lanier of her time contemplating whether to open a small gym and fitness-club business. “There were no guarantees of success and there were a lot of expenses involved, and, absolutely, there was trepidation.”
But Lanier, 60, a Newton resident and longtime personal trainer at a local YMCA, ended up overcoming her doubts and landed a loan from a local bank to start Greatest Age Fitness Inc., founded last year. She now has two part-time workers at her rented 1,700-square-foot facility in Newton, where she mostly focuses on working with women 50 and older on their fitness needs.
Like other entrepreneurs, Lanier said it’s “not enough to just to follow your dreams,” as important as that ideal may be at any age. Rather, those starting businesses should pursue what they already know they’re good at and what they enjoy doing. Self-knowledge, experience, and a network of longtime career colleagues are major business advantages that older entrepreneurs possess, and younger ones may not, Lanier and others say.
“Even then, I’d encourage people to do a lot of research, a lot of interviewing of people to learn as much as possible before starting a business,” said Lanier, who is now mulling whether to expand her fitness business. “You don’t want to get in over your head.”
Veteran start-up executive Shaun McConnon, 67, agreed that experience and knowledge are critical for those starting businesses. “That old Rolodex is really important,” said McConnon, who has served as chief executive of four start-up tech firms since he turned 50.
McConnon’s last firm, Q1 Labs Inc. of Waltham, was sold last year to IBM for an undisclosed sum — and he’s already involved with yet another company, Bitsight Technologies Inc., a Cambridge start-up focusing on computer security technology.
Before getting involved with Bitsight, McConnon said he made sure he was physically and mentally fit — and as knowledgeable as possible about the software field his new company was pursuing.
To McConnon, age isn’t an issue when starting companies, as long as business founders surround themselves with talented, level-headed employees who like to work hard and want to succeed.
“If you really hire well, it should work out fine, no matter what your age,” said McConnon. “Hiring well and promoting the right people is key.”
Benoit, the charter caption, said he carefully researched the Newport, Plymouth, and Boston Harbor markets before starting his new business, and ultimately decided to take advantage of Boston’s increasingly vibrant waterfront. At the age of 50, he felt the clock of life ticking and decided to take the leap.
“I said to myself, ‘I have to do this and this is the time,’” said Benoit, now 53, whose Come Sale Away Now and Cityside Harbor Shuttle services are grouped within his Boston Harbor Mini Tours and Shuttle LLC.
He didn’t expect to be profitable in the early years — and isn’t yet. But the business is going well enough that Benoit has expanded to four boats and expects the increased activity around Boston’s waterfront will make his life’s dream pay off.
“I had no doubts that I had to do this. That’s not to say it’s been easy. It’s been a lot of work, and I’ve had my share of surprises that I didn’t initially expect,” Benoit said. “But I’m finally doing what I want to do.”