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The Personal Toll of Starting a Business Over 50

On NextTribe's fifth anniversary, Founder Jeannie Ralston considers what she's lost and gained by devoting herself to start up success.

One of my favorite quotes about starting a business comes from my friend Lucy Danziger, who has launched a couple of companies. “The two best times to start a business are in your 20s, when you have nothing to lose, and in your 50s, when you have nothing to prove.”

I started NextTribe five years ago today, not truly understanding what I was getting myself into. I had a notion of a magazine that would give voice to women over age 45 who were smart, engaged, and too often pushed to the sidelines. My background was in magazine journalism, so I figured I knew enough about good writing–something I care deeply about–and what an audience might want to read.

I haven’t seen much written about the personal toll a start up business can take.

I had no clear idea how to make money on the Internet, and when my husband asked about the business model, I said I had read that if you get 100,000 readers per month, you will start to earn revenue. The thinking was tremendously naive but it was the going theory in the digital world at the time. (I have since learned that, to paraphrase William Goldman’s saying about Hollywood, basically nobody knows anything about what works on the Internet.)

I plunged into NextTribe, full of hope and determination. And today, I’m surprised and proud that we’re still here, still true to our mission–particularly after the pandemic pulled the rug from under our feet. We’ve had to pivot so many times, and now it’s become clear that we’re more a travel and events business than a media company.

I’ve long been a cheerleader for women entrepreneurs in this age group; I’ve done whole presentations about why we make great business owners. But I haven’t seen much written about the personal toll a start up business can take, and since I’m in a reflective mood on this fifth anniversary, here are some thoughts.

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What I’ve Lost

As Lucy Danziger’s quote above suggests, there is something to be lost by starting a business at this age. In my case, it was my marriage. No one thing can unravel a long-term union, but I can say with certainty that the single-minded attention that launching NextTribe required certainly did not help matters.

We were out of kilter with each other and we couldn’t figure out how to get back in synch.

Mostly the issue was one of timing and expectations. My ex-husband had a big career that took him all over the world. I mostly curtailed my career as a writer so that I could stay close to home with our two sons. I didn’t give up my career, by any means, but I narrowed its scope. I couldn’t go off on long reporting trips as I did before we had kids. I believed then–and still believe–that a marriage, especially one with children, can’t work with two big careers. Something will give, and it could very well be the children. I wasn’t willing to risk that.

When I started NextTribe, my husband was slowing down his career. In my mind, we would do some type of tag team. With the boys out of the house, it felt like maybe it would be my time to throw myself into something. But unfortunately, the late nights, the time in front of a computer, my intensity, and the way my conversations were so often about one thing–business, business, and more business–wore thin.

At the same time my world was getting bigger–trips, events, meetings with potential investors–his was getting smaller, by his choice. We were out of kilter with each other and couldn’t figure out how to get back in synch. So after 29 years of a mostly adventurous, exciting marriage, we called it quits. We likely would have gotten to the same point even if I’d never started NextTribe. Becoming completely absorbed in a new business just hastened the end.

What I’ve Gained

This is where the cliches usually come in–often something earnest about becoming your best self. And though I have strived for and sometimes glimpsed my best self, the one important thing I’ve gained is a better understanding of what I can’t do or don’t want to do. I’ve come to hate indecision–in myself or others. That’s new. I thought I was a people person, and as social as I am, I don’t have a real stomach for managing others. I see that this is best left to someone else on my team.

What I really appreciate through this journey is acquiring more self-knowledge.

As you go through life, you can have lots of fantasies about yourself. How smart you are if only someone would give you the chance. How you would do things differently than that person, that company, that politician, whatever. But when you’re in charge, there are no more fantasies. You have to perform and react in real time, and one of the hard parts of launching a business is disillusionment with yourself. So what I really appreciate through this journey is acquiring more self-knowledge. It really is a gift to be able to test yourself in this way.

But I’m most grateful for something that is specific to the kind of business NextTribe is. Without knowing it, I was building a support network to help soften the loss of my marriage and other stumbling points. By this I don’t mean people sending me encouraging notes and offering a shoulder to cry on–though there has been plenty of that. What I mean is that everyday I interact with women who model resilience, joy, and optimism. I see how other women cope and care and build incredible lives at this stage. That’s what keeps me going for sure–and if any entrepreneur tells you they haven’t thought of quitting, they’re lying–and the good news is that my gain is your gain too. You can see these bold women who know how to live in our pages every day, at our events, on our trips. I’m so glad we’re on this journey together.

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By Jeannie Ralston


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