Branson: Older entrepreneurs can use age to their advantage

Getting older doesn’t have to mean slowing down. Stay inspired and put your experience to work.

(Getty Images)

When I was young, my hero was Peter Pan, and he is still one of my favourite fictional characters. After all, who wouldn’t want to be him? He spent his days with a great gang of friends, he went on lots of adventures, and, most important, he could fly. While I have no intention of slowing down any time soon, it would be great to be like Peter, who never got any older.

In my experience, older entrepreneurs can use their age to their advantage, both in business and in life. There is no reason at all to slow down. If you are concerned about preserving your creativity, look to some new sources of inspiration—innovative ideas or fresh strategies from other fields, for example, or surprising new technological developments, or art and music you find interesting. I often find that when I take a break to learn about something new, my new-found knowledge can be applied to some of our Virgin businesses, helping us to tackle long-standing problems from different angles.

Senior business leaders can sometimes fall into a rut by working only with the same team of colleagues and advisers they have always trusted, wary of newcomers’ youth and inexperience. If you surround yourself with energetic, like-minded people, no matter what their ages, you will find that great ideas are more likely to flow.

One way of expanding your contacts among younger generations is by volunteering as a mentor. A lot of young people are not getting a fair shake when it comes to getting a start in business, so we started up initiatives such as the Branson Centres of Entrepreneurship in South Africa and the Caribbean, and Virgin Media Pioneers in the U.K. I’ve benefited immensely from our exchanges—these young entrepreneurs’ ideas have been fascinating and transformative.

Staying motivated is another worry that entrepreneurs contemplating the later stages of their careers have mentioned to me: If you’ve done it all before, what is the point of starting over? I have never found this to be a problem, since there is always another challenge to tackle. If you are having trouble finding an interesting new project, step back and look at your situation in a different light: How can you use this opportunity to make a difference and do good in the world? Are you are doing something you care passionately about? If so, you will want to keep doing it.

Another thing to bear in mind is the importance of physical fitness—keeping fit will help you to remain a creative, agile thinker. In the past few months, my children, Sam and Holly, and I have completed challenges including climbing Mont Blanc, which is the highest mountain in western Europe, and taking part in the London Triathlon. And over this past summer, we broke some records for kite-surfing across the English Channel: my son, Sam, broke a world record, becoming the fastest person to kite-surf across the channel, while I am now the person with the most years to have done so! A bit of action and adventure away from the office can be highly refreshing, reinvigorating your creativity in other areas, including business.

Finally, many people do not find their true calling until later in life. Some business leaders who have done well at a steady job for many years feel the urge later in their careers to start up their own businesses. Those who lose their jobs in cutbacks turn misfortune into opportunity and follow up on a brilliant idea that they never had time for before. If you find yourself in this situation, my advice is to go for it! You’ll find that a lot of the skills entrepreneurs need are acquired through experience: real-life, on-the-job expertise.

Older employees who have learned how to inspire and lead people, and how to remain persistent and optimistic despite changes in circumstances, will have an edge. Senior entrepreneurs can bring the best of both worlds to new ventures: experience and the contagious enthusiasm of a youthful mindset. Remain flexible and look around yourself for inspiration, and you may soon find that you’re onto a winning idea.

Richard Branson is a philanthropist, adventurer, entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group of companies