Launch a business after 50
7 tips to help you start the right company, without risking your financial security.
By Anne Fisher, Fortune senior writer

(Fortune) -- Dear Annie: A friend sent me your September 6 column on the 50 Best Companies for People Over 50, which is interesting, but at age 58 - after 36 years on the big-company treadmill - I'm getting ready to retire, and I'd much rather start my own business than go to work for someone else. The trouble is, I don't know what kind of company to start. My corporate background is in marketing, but my real passions are gardening and landscaping, and I do have decades of (successful but unpaid) experience at that. Would it be crazy to start a landscaping business? Any suggestions on how to decide? -Garden Guru

Dear GG: With decades of successful experience (paid or not), you're not crazy to want to build a business on it - and your sign-off might even make a good name for your new company. Jeff Williams, a startup consultant who has helped more than 4,000 clients launch their own enterprises, is president of BizStarters (www.bizstarters.com), which provides coaching and training to people over 50 who want to strike out on their own. He offers these 7 tips for anyone who is wondering what kind of company to start. See if they resonate with you.

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Look for an industry that will truly engage you. Sounds as if you've already done this. "It's especially important for burnt-out corporate refugees," Williams notes. You don't want to sink your sweat and savings into a startup only to find yourself on another treadmill.

Understand the income potential and whether it matches your needs, and how much you are comfortable investing. Take a hard-nosed look at startup costs, your local competition, and your willingness to risk your savings. Take into account the fact that it takes most new businesses at least three years to break even - if they last that long. Says Williams, "Later in life is not the time to shoot craps and risk your financial security." It's worth sitting down with a reputable accountant who has worked with lots of startups and who can help you determine how much of a gamble you're willing and able to take.

Match the physical demands of your chosen business to your energy level. "A business that requires putting in long hours every day, or hard physical labor, may not suit those 50 and older," Williams says. Hmmm. Landscaping can be physically hard work, of course, but if you can handle it (at least until you start earning enough to hire help), then go for it.

If day-to-day variety is important to you, rule out businesses that involve doing the very same thing for each customer. The idea here is to find something that will keep you passionately interested. (Luckily for you, every garden, not to mention each landscaping customer's budget, is different.)

Do you love or hate technology? "While most businesses require some computer use, consider the extent to which you'll need to use other technologies - like wireless gadgets, the Internet, and various [types of] software - to help you manage your business," Williams suggests. "If you hate technology and would rather not bother with it, can you afford to hire technical help?"

If you find you're drawn to a franchise opportunity, make sure you determine the total expected investment for the first two years. "Be aware that, with a franchise, you will always have a business partner - the franchisor - who takes part of your income," says Williams. Proceed with caution when considering a franchise: Talk with others who have bought outlets from the same company; make sure you understand everything the franchisor will expect from you (including how disputes, if any, will be resolved); and hire an attorney who specializes in franchising to explain the franchise agreement to you in detail.

The eagerness of the over-50 crowd to be their own bosses has spawned a mini-industry of coaches who, like Williams, specialize in advising would-be entrepreneurs. You might, for example, check out a terrific book, Too Young to Retire: An Off-the-Road Map to the Rest of Your Life ($13, Plume), by husband-and-wife team Marika and Howard Stone. Both the book and the Stones' website, www.2young2retire.com, are packed with practical advice and real-life tales of people who are making a living by living their dreams. Good luck!

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