Building the Australian entrepreneurial ecosystem for seniors
A key requirement for building an innovation-driven ecosystem (or “innovation engine”) is to make it possible to take advantage of under-used resources. Major underused resources in Australia include the capabilities and experiences of senior citizens who experience discrimination in the workforce and yet are capable of contributing to economic growth and development. Discrimination is evident in widely-held perceptions that innovation and entrepreneurship are activities that involve predominantly younger people. For example, a recent “hackathon” that canvassed a range of activities to promote innovation and entrepreneurship in Australia recommended that government attention should be particularly directed at developing entrepreneurship among schoolchildren, and ignored older citizens (BlueChilli, 2015). The evidence, however, is that entrepreneurship is an activity that primarily engages older people. In the US, for example, the average age of entrepreneurs was found to be 40 years (Stangler, 2014), and in Australia it was found to be 36 years (Spike Innovation, 2015).
A growing area of entrepreneurial activity is senior entrepreneurship that refers to entrepreneurial initiatives undertaken by people over 50 (Maritz, 2015; Maritz et al., 2015). Universities can help to address the current under-use of these “senior” resources by identifying the needs of this demographic by exploring the entrepreneurial ecosystem for this group.
The entrepreneurial ecosystem has been variously defined, but can be described as “a set of interconnected entrepreneurial actors… which formally and informally coalesce to connect, mediate and govern the performance within the local entrepreneurial environment” (Mason & Brown, 2014, p. 5). A challenge in specifying this ecosystem is that it can be described at the level of the individual entrepreneur, at the firm level, and at the institutional and government level. It is suggested that the complexity of definitions of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, such as representations by the World Economic Forum (Foster et al., 2013) and Isenberg (2011), is due to attempts to address each of these levels of analysis in the one model.
The authors were instrumental in helping to establish SeniorPreneurs in 2015 as a national network in Australia to encourage entrepreneurial initiatives by people over 50 years of age. In this research, it was decided to explore the entrepreneurial ecosystem for seniors at the individual or entrepreneur level. The research question was: “What facilities do senior potential entrepreneurs consider to be necessary for them to be able to start a new venture?”
Members of the SeniorPreneurs network in Adelaide, Melbourne, and Sydney were invited to complete an online questionnaire that included open-ended questions regarding perceived barriers to starting a new enterprise, the nature of current support services, and the support services that they considered necessary or desirable. Qualitative data was analysed using concept mapping (Balan, Balan-Vnuk, Metcalfe, & Lindsay, 2015; Metcalfe, 2014) to produce maps revealing the key themes emerging from the data.
Results and Implications
This paper presents the results of analysis of the first 72 responses to this survey. Of these, 64 were over 50 years of age, and 45 had previously started a business. 44 considered that senior entrepreneurs needed different support facilities than younger entrepreneurs, and nine considered that they did not require anything different. The major barriers to starting a new venture were identified to be lack of finance, their personal energy and level of interest, red tape and regulations, and their personal health. The current support services were identified to be none or very little, current support organisations such as business enterprise centres (BEC), and the SeniorPreneurs network itself. The major support services that were considered to be necessary included financial support, access to specialist skills such as marketing and IT, and a SeniorPreneurs incubator or co-working space specifically for members.
These preliminary results show that SeniorPreneurs’ perceived barriers to creating a new venture are significantly influenced by their own personal health and well-being. It is surprising that these participants regarded the embryonic SeniorPreneurs network as a support service, even though a significant proportion had already started their own business. A number of these participants indicated a preference for incubator facilities specific for SeniorPreneur members. Together, these results suggest that the category of current or potential entrepreneurs see themselves as not being included in the wide range of existing support services, and consider that they have particular requirements that differ from those of younger entrepreneurs. These results also bear strong similarities to those of other research carried out with older would-be entrepreneurs in Australia (Lenaerts, 2016).
To this extent, an obvious question is to what extent should universities be providing educational programs that target SeniorPreneurs and, to what extent should they be providing innovation hub services (such as incubation, acceleration, maker spaces, etc.) that target SeniorPreneurs so as to improve their relevance to local communities and increase their social impact by helping to develop an “innovation engine” by taking advantage of the under-used social resources of senior citizens?