Stay focused, prioritize, and get it done with rigor.
Dr. Anita Leffel is a business owner, a university professor and former Dean. She has written and published extensively about teaching and learning entrepreneurship. If the number of former students who have started and run their own businesses, or who are entrepreneurial in their careers is an indication of successful teaching, she is very successful. She received awards in teaching excellence during her 15+ years of teaching entrepreneurship. She co-founded a number of organizations for students: an ongoing business plan competition, an entrepreneurship group, and developed a Toastmasters International chapter for the college setting. She has taught and mentored hundreds of nascent entrepreneurs in universities, at invited workshops in the US and abroad, in online courses, and face-to-face. In management positions for over 10 years, she worked in non-profit, for-profit and government entities before moving into academia. She received her Ph.D. at the young age of 50 from Texas A&M University. Originally from Texas, she now calls herself an encore California. She ran 9 marathons, qualifying twice for the ultimate marathon, Boston. She says her training taught her the importance of staying focused and learning to develop mental and physical endurance. Anita Leffel has owned and launched several businesses, and is CEO and Founder of Silver Founder Academy, Inc. an organization whose mission is to help those over the age of 50 who want to become entrepreneurs in their encore years. She has 3 married children, and 1.5 grandchildren (one is on the way!), a loving husband and a dog who thinks he is human.
Where did the idea for Silver Founder Academy come from?
I taught entrepreneurship in the university setting for over 15 years. Though I had been in a solo business before, I chose to go into academia because I loved working with nascent entrepreneurs. During this time, I kept abreast of the most successful teaching methods used in top tier universities and implemented those and proprietary methodologies to help entrepreneurs realize their own dreams. I advanced in my career and became a Dean, but I arrived at a point where I didn’t quite feel the same level of enthusiasm I experienced while working with nascent entrepreneurs. Being a baby boomer, I felt like I had to continue, and that any change in my career this late in life would be impossible.
Many people over the age of 50 are redesigning their careers. The term encore is being used to describe recreating one’s career in the last third of one’s life. While doing some research into what baby boomers are doing in their encore careers, I discovered that 80% are interested in entrepreneurship. Driven by my passion and experience in entrepreneurship, I began collecting (and eventually crafting) resources to help the older nascent entrepreneurs with generating viable business ideas, designing a business model for making the kind of money they want to make, and support in marketing and finance. What I found in my research was that while these types of resources do exist, they are located all over the place: courses, readings, the Small Business Development Center, the Small Business Administration, etcetera. The problem is, you really have to know what you want in order to find it. And I thought, I could help.
And so, the Silver Founder Academy was born: A one-stop for people over the age of 50 who are interested in entrepreneurship as an encore career.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I learned early on, that how I start my day has a consequential impact on how the rest of the day goes. After I wake up, I read for an hour, walk for an hour, return home to eat a healthy breakfast, and by 8:00 am I begin my work day feeling energized. At the end of each day, I make a short list of things I want to accomplish the next day, so that I begin with my list each morning. Throughout the day, when I find myself feeling overwhelmed, mindful walking for 15 to 20 minutes is as good as a nap. The key is to enjoy the walk, the air, the scenery, and to not think about all the tasks I need to accomplish. This is a form of mindful meditation and has grounded me in the most stressful times, helped me in preparing for a speech or important meeting, or calmed me while facing difficult decisions.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I read a lot. I read a variety of articles and books and though they are generally about entrepreneurship, they are really across the spectrum. I also love to connect the dots, almost like a game: how can two dissimilar things be similar? By the way, that’s how I keep developing the entrepreneurial mindset.
Another thing that I find invigorating and that really opens up the creative juices, is continuously asking why? I learned this from an experiment I conducted in class one time. I offered a problem to the class. Then one by one, each student would answer the question why? For example, I would say such and such is a problem faced by the disabled population, and the first student would have to answer why? After the answer was given, the next student was asked why in response to the answer given. This process generates such a variety of perspectives from one idea. Then I follow a due diligence centered around the customer.
What’s one trend that excites you?
Did you know that one of the fastest growing age groups who are turning to entrepreneurship, are people over the age of 50? There are so many people over the age of 50 who are still employed but believe they can do more, and should do more with what they know and what they can accomplish. Never before are the resources so plentiful for helping a nascent entrepreneur start a business. Daymond John says that with the power of the internet and the ability to connect with customers, entrepreneurship is based more on creativity and not money. I believe this is an exciting time for people over the age of 50 who are looking to start a business- a time in which the chances of success are far more possible.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Most of my adult life, I struggled with negative self-talk. “I can’t do that,” “I’m not qualified,” “I’m not good enough.” I finally realized how much I was held back by my own disabling self-talk. Even sometimes now I’ll think, “I have so much to do, I’ll never be able to get ahead” or “there are so many smarter people out there doing similar things, I simply cannot compete.” But I quickly catch myself in this trash talk and remind myself that I’m on a journey, that it’s actually fun, and that I love solving these types of problems.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Learn to be mindful. I don’t mean just to be more aware, but to truly learn to be in the moment. Learn different forms of meditation and find which one calms you, relaxes you, invigorates you, and then be obsessive about incorporating it into your day.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
As an entrepreneur, as a teacher, as a friend, and as a parent, communication is extremely important to me. Where so many advise to disconnect and turn off the electronics during the weekend, or in the evening, I choose to stay connected. I may not respond immediately when I’m contacted, but I want others to know that I can be reached quickly if the message is important.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
One inch wide and one mile deep. That is the kind of focus I maintain. I’m often tempted to stray out. Someone may ask me to do something and I tend to drop all and begin doing it, only to realized I’ve lost my focus. Stay focused, prioritize, and get it done with rigor.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Talk to my customer. It’s so important to be aware of who they are, what they need, and how they experience my work and my offerings in solving their problem. Sometime ago, I had reached out to who I thought was a customer. After I had a one-on-one conversation, I only then realized I did not know enough about my customer base to find them and keep them.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
The first course I designed got poor reviews. I thought, ok this is telling me I am not good enough to give my customers what they need.
But as I thought about the comments, and reached out to interact with more of the customers, I realized where I went astray from their needs. Maybe I told them I was going to give them x and only gave them y. I may have thought by giving them y I was meeting their needs. Once I listened and learned and iterated and asked for more feedback, I learned how to give them what they need.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Baby boomers who have been in business for a long time and are ready to retire, don’t always have a buyer for their businesses. Develop a way to connect those who want to start a business with those who want to retire. Often baby boomers cannot sell their business nor turn it over to family or employees. Develop a process of matching and facilitating the coordination of a business owner working with someone who wants but can’t afford the business, and slowly turn over the business.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I took an online course, not expecting to gain as much as I did. In fact, the course changed my entire approach to public speaking: how to write, prepare, and present. I always knew, because of my profession as a college professor, that I could speak well. However, this course taught me how to approach the non-academic audience. A simple online course made me grow significantly!
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?
Feedspot! The curated articles have given me tons of useful ideas for blog posts and for sharing and curating my own articles on entrepreneurship for the over 50 crowd.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
I recently wrote a blog post on 10 books entrepreneurs should have in their library. So, when asked this question, I immediately and without hesitation thought of “7 Habits of Very Effective People.” Years ago, when this book first came out, I read it (reread it several times) and even on long drives I listened to the audio cassette (at that time there wasn’t an iTunes). One habit mentioned in the book that really resonated with me at the time, and that I incorporated into my life immediately, is the habit of having the end in mind. Imagine you are at your funeral and you are looking down from above, with no opportunity of suggesting what should be said in your eulogy. Think about what you would like people to say about you-and live it!
To me, that was a no brainer. I want to be remembered as a good mother. When the kids were younger I wanted them to be able to walk into the house with their friends and say, “hey, this is my mom!” Not, downtrodden and embarrassed. So when your adult kids follow you on twitter, then you know you have succeeded.
What is your favorite quote?
Never be afraid to start over. It’s a chance to rebuild your life the way you wanted all along.
- Be passionate in what you do. It is easy for others to get excited about what you do when they see how excited you are.
- Learning never stops, no matter what you do, who you are, and how well you think you know something. Picasso said I’m always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.
- Remember: Entrepreneurship is not a goal, it is a journey, a way of life.
- Never be afraid of failure. As the founder of Dropbox says, “You only need to be right once.”
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Mario Schulzke is the Founder of ideamensch, which he started a decade ago to learn from entrepreneurs and give them a platform for their ideas.