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Seniors proving entrepreneurship isn’t just for the young

John Seelmeyer

Reno technology entrepreneur Terry Retter’s immediate goal is to build sales of his Web-based retailer of kitchen gear to $300,000 to $500,000 a year.

But he feels the pressures of passing time.

At age 72, Retter figures he only has 20 years left to build YourSmartKitchen.com.

He’s not alone. Northern Nevada is seeing a steady number of folks at retirement age sometimes well past retirement age who are deeply involved in development of technology companies.

“These people have been around the block. You still see the glimmer in their eye, but they are more grounded,” says Matt Westfield, managing director of Reno’s Startup and Growth Strategies Inc.

Westfield says his group, which teaches bootstrapping skills to entrepreneurs, sees a steady flow of people in their 60s and 70s who are launching technology businesses.

Some of them need to return to business after the recession trashed their retirement finances. Others, Westfield said, simply can’t stay away from the challenge of starting a new business.

A common element that separates older entrepreneurs from their younger compatriots is that, “They are doing a lot more homework rather than jumping,” says Westfield.

Retter, who spent 20 years in his first career as a high-technology executive who specialized in spotting future trends, says he works differently now that he’s in his 70s.

“Retirement is a career change, not an end to work. But now I don’t work 10-hour days,” he says. “I work two, four-hour days.”

On the other hand, there’s a lot more to learn these days, even among folks who considered themselves tech-savvy five years ago.

There’s search-engine optimization. Social marketing (Some 8,000 folks follow YourSmartKitchen.com on Twitter, and it’s liked by about 3,000 on Facebook). And the changing face of basic business skills.

“It’s not hard, but it’s a long learning curve” says Retter, whose firm got started in fits and starts while he worked for a couple of Web design firms that didn’t deliver. At the same time, he was proving himself to the kitchenware manufacturers whose lines he sells through YourSmartKitchen.com.

The company works from Retter’s home in northwest Reno. Because orders are drop-shipped from manufacturers directly to consumers, physical inventory never lands in his garage.

Linda Schachten and Judy Haar, meanwhile, have turned the lack of technology skills among some of their senior compatriots into a niche business.

The 63-year-old Schachten and the 65-year-old Haar launched Senior Computer Learning Connection, a Reno company that helps seniors learn skills such as the uses of Facebook.

The challenge, Schachten says, is providing useful information to seniors without talking down to them. That requires a bit of life experience and a careful touch.

Haar, a retired nuclear physicist, says the new venture reflects her inability to slow down.

The two women had developed course materials, developed a Web site and begun marketing the new firm within a couple of months of their decision to join forces earlier this year.

“I’m a workaholic,” says Haar, who also writes and publishes e-books along with her work with Senior Computer Learning Connection.

Schachten, meanwhile, says no one should be surprised by the number of retirees who are launching businesses in technology or any other sector, for that matter.

“Age is just a number,” she says. “I don’t think I ever will retire. I’m happiest when I’m learning something new.”

And retirees aren’t simply launching new tech ventures. They’re helping to point them in new directions as well.

Mitch Zeigler, for instance, was long-retired from a career in electronics distribution and was happily teaching at Truckee Meadows Community College when he was called back into service as president of Reno-based Dibbs Inc.

Now he’s the gray-haired leader of a team of far younger software developers and marketers creating the events-and-entertainment app for mobile devices.

Retter says that senior entrepreneurs dream just as big as their younger counterparts.

He laughs, for instance, he wouldn’t mind working really hard to run annual sales number for YourSmartKitchen.com up to $6 million but only for the 60 days before he sells it.