A study conducted in 2009 on the demographics of entrepreneurship yielded findings that most of us would consider quite counterintuitive. “The Coming Entrepreneurship Boom” found that the highest rate of entrepreneurial activity was carried out by baby boomers in the 55-to-64 age group. Younger people, ages 20 to 34, had the lowest rate.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with just such a boomer entrepreneur. Jeff Mariola is CEO of Digital Brandworks, a startup based outside of Chicago that provides consultancy services to help manufacturers (think household goods, not iron works) establish and maintain a robust online strategy.
Until last year, Mariola, who is 59, had spent his entire 28-year career working for various divisions of Rentokil/Initial, a large British corporation that was founded as a pest control company in 1925. Over the decades, the company branched out into other areas, including indoor landscaping (renting out office plants and such), which is the division where Mariola spent most of his time with the company. Mariola eventually became CEO of that division, and he made some much-needed improvements. For one, it apparently hadn’t occurred to anyone across the pond that “Rentokil” isn’t an ideal name for a company that rents out office plants. Under Mariola’s leadership, the division was renamed, “Ambius.”
Mariola said he long had the goal of owning his own company, so in 2009, he attempted to do a management buyout of Ambius. The recession kind of stalled that effort, but Mariola didn’t give up easily. He decided that if he couldn’t make the buyout happen by July, 2012, he’d leave the company and venture out on his own. In the end, it didn’t work out, and Mariola and Ambius mutually agreed to part ways.
Mariola had been very active in Vistage, a CEO networking group, and through that connection he met Aaron Miller, co-founder of BuyHappier.com, an e-commerce site that specialized in selling various manufacturers’ end-of-life products. Mariola became an investor in BuyHappier.com, and in the fall of 2012, Miller, eager to tap Mariola’s management experience, invited him to come into the company as CEO.
Although BuyHappier.com has been successful—it was in the Inc. 500 list of fastest-growing companies this year—Mariola recognized that tight margins and competitive pressure from the likes of Amazon brought into question just how long the model would be sustainable. He determined that what the company needed was a recurring revenue model, so in October he launched Digital Brandworks to leverage the company’s relationships with manufacturers, and to provide them with the know-how to establish themselves online. Mariola continues to serve as CEO of BuyHappier.com (now a unit of Digital Brandworks), as well.
When I spoke with Mariola, I noted that he had come into this venture, which specializes in online branding for manufacturers, with absolutely no online or manufacturing experience. I asked him if that matters, and he said it does:
But the core skill of a good leader, and a good manager, is making certain that you surround yourself with a team that fills in the areas where you’re lacking. When I first arrived here, there were two individuals in the group that I really rated highly. One was Mike Small, the chief operating officer at that time. He particularly understood the buy side and distribution side of the business, and understood the e-commerce element. The other was Greg Sizelove [vice president, brand relations], who was in charge of looking after customers, but mainly as a seller. He had a lot of experience working for a number of larger companies. So I knew I had two people who rounded out areas that I didn’t have any experience in. My core competencies would be more around customer service.
I found it interesting that Mariola never went to college, so I asked him if that mattered anywhere along the way. He said as it turned out, it didn’t matter in his case:
When I reflect back on my career, when I was in my 30s, I had the belief that because I didn’t have that college experience, I would never attain the role of president or CEO. That became something I had to personally overcome. That’s not a path I would advise anyone to take. Obviously, the more education you can get, the more it will help you. But if I have to give myself any credit, it’s for a couple of things. One, I became a voracious reader of business books—a student of business. Two, I’ve surrounded myself with some really good people over the years. I joined the Vistage network, which is the world’s largest CEO network. Every month, I’m with 16 other CEOs in the Chicago area, and we have speakers. The learning that has come from that is kind of my MBA.
Finally, I asked Mariola what his advice is for baby boomers who would love to make that transition to an entrepreneurial venture, but have no clue where to even start. He said three component have to come together:
First, you have to find something that you can really put your heart and soul into—something you’re very passionate about. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t frightened away by my lack of understanding of the whole e-commerce world. The second thing is, it needs to be a sustainable business model. You can fall in love with something, but if you can’t realistically look at it and see that over the next four or five years it will be sustainable, then all the passion in the world won’t get you there. The third component is just really understanding what will drive that economic engine. What is the single thing you can look at in the business that will make it a viable venture? For us, it’s recurring revenue—the consultancy side. Those three things, if thought through, can generally take you from not having experience, to starting up a business.