Whiteley, Sharon

Sharon Whiteley is president and CEO of ThirdAge Inc., an online content, marketing, and research company focused exclusively on serving the needs of Baby Boomers and midlife adults. A seasoned entrepreneur, she has built several successful companies, including Peacock Papers Inc. and Contempo Colors Inc.

Sharon has received the Women's Entrepreneur of the Year Award (2000), is Chair of the National Center on Women & Aging, and is on the Board of Directors of The Committee of 200 and the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. She is the coauthor of The Old Girls' Network: Insider Advice for Women Building Businesses in a Man's World.

tompeters.com asks …

What was the impetus for writing The Old Girls’ Network?

SW: Hardly scientific. I was on my balcony with two other angel investor women friends, musing over some of the better investment decisions we had made and laughing at ourselves for some of our calls.

I said, “Let’s write a book. A lot of people could learn from some of our mistakes—and some of our sounder judgments, too.” We started from the vantage point of the investor, but it soon morphed itself into a book for entrepreneurs—or anybody else for that matter—that had the dream of wanting to create an enterprise, regardless of whether it was a solo-shop or a venture-backed opportunity.

So the desire came out of a commitment to support women entrepreneurs and an interest in being a mentor—really just calling the shots honestly, and with substance that could be helpful for people that wanted to pursue that path.

One of the things that impresses me about the book is the detail you get into starting with someone who’s just thinking about wanting to have a business and taking them all the way to funding and setting up a company.

SW: That’s nice to hear; that was the intention. When we wrote the book, it was “in fashion” to create a business or to be an entrepreneur, especially just coming out of business school. But many didn’t really know much about what it would take, and at the end of the day, some concluded that it wasn’t for them.

So I think the book is helpful to some who had the fantasy of creating a business as opposed to the reality. It’s meant to help people who have a passion for something, but can’t necessarily connect that to a business opportunity. They could walk through some critical steps that could help them get there or, once they realized everything that was involved, re-think whether their “heart” was in it enough to create a business.


SW: We start off with that message because if you’re not passionate about your idea, really passionate, you should just hang it up, right at the door. Don’t even go further, because there are days when that passion will be the only fuel you have.

And it’s distinctly from a woman’s point of view and aimed at women—starting with the title of the book, The Old Girls’ Network, an obvious play on the old boys network. True or not, people tend to think that guys know how to set up business and women do not. So where do you see women standing in that regard these days? Has there been an improvement or has there been a change?

SW: Gosh, this could be an endless answer. I think the world we’re living in is changing day by day, and there will be a lot more people venturing forth in business—both men and women.

When we decided to pitch the book to women, we were not coming from a “causal” or feminist point of view. (Well, one of my book partners probably would have been a bra burner; on the other hand, I would have gone to build a factory to replace them).

But seriously, “access to capital” is probably the biggie in terms of the swath not being historically or culturally cut for women. There is definitely a lot of truth to the “old boys network” in terms of the way the guys would network, or the way a friendship would lead to an association or affiliation in ways that just haven’t been paved for women.

Our intent was not to make it a chick book; rather, an excellent book for anybody that has the dream of creating an enterprise. It does, however, specifically focus on women’s attributes that haven’t been honed for business, per se, and also, on under-developed areas where women would benefit greatly from getting those skills under their belt.

We did some truth-telling also in terms of certain stereotypical behaviors attributed to women, some of which are true. For instance, budding women entrepreneurs do have a tendency to not display as much bravado about the expanse of an idea as their male counterparts.

We wanted to write a book that would be meaningful to a very specific audience segment—and a very prime segment of the market—Women—as opposed to a gender neutral, middle of the road version.

Now shifting gears to your entrepreneurial success. How did you survive setting up small businesses and moving ahead? Did you have mentors or what was your learning process?

SW: Well it’s interesting. I built five highly competitive, market-driven companies. I never went to business school, in the classic sense—which probably would have been handy in hindsight. On the one hand, I would have learned how to read a balance sheet faster. On the other hand, as my first banker told me, I probably wouldn’t have gone into any business if I had; I would have known too much.

I love the debate about entrepreneurs, “Are they born or are they made?” I think it’s actually a bell curve. On one end, there’s that group that no matter what type of education, teaching, coaching, mentoring, they will never, ever kick into that entrepreneurial stride.

At the other end of the spectrum are those that just can’t live their lives any other way. It’s their destiny. And then there are those in the middle—this whole group who with a genuine interest in their idea, a strong education along with developed skills, will make terrific entrepreneurs.

I’m definitely on one of the extreme ends. I can’t not do something I get smitten by. And I feel like I was born this way. I grew up in an entrepreneurial family, and I witnessed joy with my dad around aspects of his business. So, not sure if it was in my genes or taught to me at a very young age. I am also an identical twin and my sister, Sheila Shechtman, is also an entrepreneur. So, on some level, you can say we prove out the DNA model. Neither of us had any plans, let alone a conscious heart’s desire, to go into business on our own when we were growing up.

After college, I “fell” into a job in which my creative side manifested itself in a business format mostly creating products; the exact same thing happened to Sheila. Our higher education was “on the street,” as they say—experiential.

In retrospect, I guess I did have a mentor very early on, probably in my very first job in the shopping center development industry. But I wouldn’t have even thought to call him a mentor—and I’m sure I couldn’t have spelled the word “entrepreneur.” He was a very charismatic, earthy, intuitively brilliant man named Dave MacLean, my boss. Dave always communicated with me in a fashion that was helpful in terms of concrete critiquing when I needed it; but, the key was he delivered it in such a fashion that I always felt supported and I came to believe I could do anything. I had never experienced that before. And so I think he’s the reason why I’ve always tried to make myself available to those that want some encouragement or input.

That’s great. But now you are CEO of a company called ThirdAge. Tell us a little bit about the company and what got it going.

SW: Well the company was started in 1996 as a convergent media company, for everything that that word holds. It was just starting at the heyday of the Internet times. And it was an online company geared to baby boomers.

My introduction to the company came in the summer of 2001. The company actually had gone through a few rounds of venture capital funding, raised close to $100 million, and the owner was in the process of divesting.

My book partners and I, who were also doing a little angel investing together, had looked at it 30 days before it was going to be closed down. I guess it’s as simple as saying that I fell in love. I had been a manufacturer of consumer product for the preceding 16 years with a gift line focused on positive messaging around aging—right up the baby boomer alley.

I was very familiar with the demographic of the audience and it seemed to be an incredible opportunity. So everyone said, “This is great, Sharon. Your enthusiasm is contagious and you have the business know-how. This is terrific. We can all see this potential here, but who’s going to run the company (which was in San Francisco—a minor detail for a Bostonian in love)?” So I raised my hand and said, “Okay. I’ll do it for a year.” We closed 10 days before 9/11.

You’re an entrepreneur and an adventurer.

SW: Well, it was sort of like a visceral sense of the opportunity because of the times we’re living in, the convergence of technology and the Internet, the aging population, and the particularly different attributes that we boomers have. It’s a very different world, one that we’ve never been in before. I guess it really was a pioneering sort of pull. So that’s about how much market research went into that one.

Excellent. So what does ThirdAge do?

SW: What we are currently is a content, marketing and research company. We serve the consumer population—mostly women—by being sort of an interactive magazine, featuring content around core topic areas and services that are relevant to boomers.

And for business partners, we provide a very effective and efficient medium in which they can build a relationship with those consumers, market to them, do research about them. As we look forward, we are becoming more of a learning company because lifelong learning is a paramount value to ThirdAgers (who are not “seniors” by any stretch). Even though it’s not about a chronological age, we serve the over-40 set, with our sweet spot in the early 50s. The commercial world has this demarcation point that at 50, something magical happens—


SW: Exactly.

I joined!

SW: Did you?

I said, “What the hell. I know these guys are going to be relentless about continuing after me. So I’m just going to give in right now and give them my $12.50.” I’m just curious about how their message is put out there to people like me—I’m 50 years old, but I think I’m 32.

SW: Actually we know AARP well, in fact have a relationship with them. But their company or that organization was really built on the G.I. Generation. I think their branding and their messaging still resonate with that audience. And I think that obviously they’re looking for ways to connect with the boomer population.

The brand is really thought of as more senior retirement in the old fashioned sense of it. In fact we just did some very interesting research with J. Walter Thompson. As far as our group is concerned, retirement really means still working. People will never retire in the sense of the gold watch days.

But I think AARP is really very active out there and is very committed to being relevant to the boomer generation.

There is that attitude of “I don’t want anybody seeing this AARP card in my wallet unless it could get me into the movies more cheaply.” But that’s the funny thing. You think of AARP and senior discounts, but then they start hitting you at 50.

SW: Right, right. Well, 50 in the old days was pretty ancient compared to now. I think the times we’re living in are particularly interesting because I think it’s a new paradigm, to use an overused word, that’s never been here before. First of all, there have never been so many of us that are still alive and still healthy, and have the perspective about what it’s going to mean to get older, and how exciting a time of life this is to live it fully. And it’s not about going kicking and screaming. It’s not about aging gracefully.

What’s different about our generation, the leading edge boomers, is that reality hits. There’s loss, illnesses, all that. But it’s really about confronting it and then transcending it.

So there are a lot of people feeling a lot more comfortable in their own skin, with the wisdom to say, “You know what? I’ve lived enough life. I know who I am, what I stand for.” So it’s really quite an exciting time for many people.

It seems that there’s a great potential for a lot of learning, or for this wisdom to be spread around the universe, more so now than has happened before. Unless that’s some ridiculous pipe dream that I’m having.

SW: No, I think you’re right. Well the thing of it is, I think it’s going to make the tipping point look like a seesaw. Because you just can’t defy the laws of gravity. Now if you look at the numbers and if you compound that by the financial wealth that this group owns or controls, and you look at the historical characteristics of the generations in which they grew up, (which really says a lot about their values and about the color lenses they see life through), you’ll see that times have never been like this before.

And then throw the technology factor in on top of that, along with the countervailing need that such creates—people’s desire and want for community and personal interaction. I think the confluence of all these forces is going to dramatically change the world in which we live and the landscapes on which we live our lives—personal, social or business.

But are our values really that much different from our parents’?

SW: Very interesting. You know, we did some values-based market segmentation, which basically would say demographics are passive, and you can look at them, but then put them aside. I think that values come from a number of different things. They can come from the family that you grow up in. They can come from your peers as you’re growing up. They can come from the part of the world you live in and your socio-economic level and the history, the times that you grow up in.

I think values are pretty much set by the time someone is in their mid- to late-20s. Preferences and priorities may change because of life’s circumstances, but really their core values don’t. And this is something that I think that marketers miss when they’re advertising, trying to hit their target consumer solely on a demographic level.

So I think people’s individual values come from many sources and that’s something that marketers would be very, very wise to pay attention to.

Here at tompeters.com we’ve spoken to David Wolfe about ageless marketing and Marti Barletta about marketing to women, and then boomer women, and the message we keep hearing is that marketers don’t even understand this discussion we’re having at some level. They’re still in this 18-44 situation. I think David Wolfe would say it’s because the marketers themselves are all about 28 years old now, and so they think a 45-year-old is near death, I guess.

SW: Well, yes and no. We’re also a marketing company, so we deal with the young creatives at the advertising agencies and young brand managers. There is certainly truth to their perspectives. The real issue, though, is not so much that they think we are “near death.” Rather, it is that they have not walked in our shoes, and therefore, do not see life through empathic lenses. However, it is changing. It’s been changing in a compounded fashion over the last few years. Going back to when I was head of a company called Peacock Papers, our product was positive messaging around aging, like, “Don’t you hope you look this good at, 40, 50, 60, 70…?” or “I’m not Aging, I’m Marinating.”

But if someone really looked and understood what products people were responding to from an emotional standpoint, the handwriting was on the wall. What’s different now is that marketers are waking up to it.

The Gap, for instance, is building their first new chain in 10 years, and it’s focused on boomer women. They probably just got tired of looking at Chico’s stock price, you know? Seriously, there are a number of companies that are waking up.

Can you just talk a bit about Chico’s for people who are not aware of what that is?

SW: Yes, it’s a clothing store that is built with, I would say, a middle-aged woman’s body in mind. The clothes are sized and shaped differently and are more comfortable for the mature woman. But they’re not frumpy-looking. They’re not ‘missy’ sizes and they’re decent quality fabric. It’s pretty casual, but they’ve been the only one, with the exception of Eileen Fisher, who’s always been her own person and always had her own message, her own brand—and who’s also done very well.

It will be very interesting to see what The Gap comes up with. We’re seeing a huge change in Madison Avenue as well as with major brands, now going back to the whole boomer market. Michelob, Ford—all the companies. I think again it’s just going to push things over the edge. You’re going to start to see a major change because that’s where the money is. I think marketers are waking up. You know the numbers and you know where the population is. And the 18-34 year-olds, they’re pretty stagnant for the next 15 years.

It’s interesting; we’re seeing a very big difference. We also do a lot of research at ThirdAge, and we’re in the process of creating a 25,000-person research panel to draw from.

Is that U.S. or is that global?

SW: Our audience on ThirdAge is primarily U.S., so the panel will reflect the same demographic—the majority between 40 and 65 and approximately 70% women. But right now, there’s plenty of interest domestically for researchers, merchants, businesspeople that want to talk to a piece of this market, whether it’s boomer women or grandparent boomers or boomers at large. That’s exciting … if you like numbers, and we do like numbers.

We like numbers, too.

SW: Well you know what also is amazing—the amount of products and services that are waiting to be born. It’s mind-blowing. You know, even having a little bit of osteoarthritis or something in my hand means I can’t easily open those little mustard packets at the movie theaters. Ticks me off. So it goes all the way down to packaging and subtle things. I think loyalty is going to shift to companies that have the relevant products of perceived value.

Well yes. I’ve got a drawer full of OXO kitchen utensils now. My hands are fine, but those tools just look good.

SW: Yes, right, right. It’s interesting. This generation has really been used to defining how they’re going to live life, what they want out of it. And I think they’re all aging, even from a technology standpoint. Look at Steve Jobs, Bill Gates—everybody’s getting older. So it will be interesting to see—

Mick Jagger.

SW: Mick Jagger absolutely. He’s a star.

I know. It’s frightening. They’re all in their 60s now.

SW: Yes, but you know I think a lot people are just having a great time with life, feeling that it’s a great time to be alive. In fact, a lot of people are really just starting to live, a lot of women in particular. The whole entrepreneurial scene with women is going to dramatically shift.

Just the need for flexibility or the desire for it will cause a lot of people to chuck corporate life. In this research we just did, we’re finding that the stereotype is still playing itself out in terms of employers’ comfort level with people taking time off for care-giving. I think a lot of people, largely women, are going to take an independent track.

And then lead the way for men perhaps. Because I always think back—we got on this women’s issue in Deloitte and Touche and doing the study and finding out why women were really leaving. And it wasn’t why they thought. It was really about life issues and a decent workplace and flexibility.

And then it turns out that the guys really always wanted those things as well, but they just didn’t say, “Hey, I want that.” It seems that, at least for now and maybe for a long time to come, the women are going to be leading a lot of these movements because they’re not trapped by that old stereotypical workplace mentality.

SW: Right. I think some women that have gone through business schools, Gen-X and Gen-Y women in particular, have watched how their parents have grown up, and they’ve decided that, “Hey, I’ll go to business school. I’ll get that under my belt. I’ll work a few years. And then I’m taking time off to get a family.”

The younger generations, too, are calling the shots differently. But I think you’re right. A lot of women have looked at it and have left through the green door (I call it the “green door” instead of the “glass ceiling”), where there’s a lot more opportunity and flexibility without a lot of the rigmarole, politics, bureaucracy, and demands.

This whole women’s thing, everybody talks about it and it certainly is a market segment—a HUGE one in fact—always has been really. But we were talking earlier about David and Marti and ‘ageless marketing’ or marketing to women, and I think there are now what, five consulting companies focused on women?

I think it will be interesting to see where that trend goes. Truth of the matter is women are part of the human race. We don’t want to be segregated. Merchandised to, Yes, put in a box, No. It really boils down to fundamental great marketing. Period. People don’t want to be talked at, or talked to, you know. Who doesn’t get their heart or their core touched by, let’s say, a ‘priceless’ ad from Mastercard or messages that just touch you emotionally. That’s the key.

So I think on some level we look for the segmentation where a lot of it is simply being really good and smart and paying attention to customers at large. Everybody’s smarter. Everybody’s more discerning.

But this is something we found at ThirdAge with boomers. If a marketer or a company will take the time to simply understand the audience they’re talking to talk to them in a vocabulary that lets that person know they truly understand and respect them, then they’ll have a chance to build something that’s called a relationship—like the old days. And they’ll have a customer for life.

Again, maybe it’s part of this education and exploration thing as you get older. But I find myself more willing to try different things now. When you’re younger, you want to be part of the group and so you’re really not as adventurous in many ways in your shopping habits. Whereas now, every week I want to try out something different.

SW: Yes, you’re very right. I think it’s a phenomenal opportunity for someone to really understand the possibilities. And there are plenty of them. I keep promising my husband that I will not go back into manufacturing tangible product, but the lure is there. I’ll probably write another book.

We’ll look forward to that. Thank you.

Web site: www.thirdage.com

Email: sharonw [at] thirdage.com