20 Nov Paul Tasner on Late-in-Life Entrepreneurship
Paul Tasner spent 33 years working in the supply chain industry before founding PulpWorks Inc. at the age of 66. Today he enjoys great success, and his customer list includes corporate giants such as Google, Cambell’s Soup, Anthropologie, and Energizer. Last year, Paul gave an inspirational TED Talk. (If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you check it out!) He has been featured in over 75 publications including The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and The New York Times. He was kind enough to spend a Friday afternoon chatting with me, and I found him both inspiring and hilarious (see his answer to my question about ageism!)
What is PulpWorks?
We design and manufacture sustainable packaging for consumer goods using waste from paper, cardboard, and agriculture. The pulp is molded into a package. The technology we use is not proprietary—it’s been a around for a long time. At the low end—the more primitive version—it’s used for egg cartons. But I like to think our packages are a lot cooler-looking than egg cartons.
How did you happen to become an entrepreneur when you were 66?
I was fired along with several other folks [from Method Products]. I used to do consulting 15 years earlier. I wasn’t thrilled with it, but I could certainly make a living. So that’s what I started doing [after I was fired]. But it just wasn’t okay with me. I wanted to do something special, and I wanted to make sure I got it right. People always ask me about my “aha moment.” I didn’t have one. I don’t think most people do. It just kind of grows organically. I’d think about [my idea for a sustainable packaging company] and I couldn’t find a reason not to do it anymore. My kids were grown. The mortgage was under control. My wife’s my biggest cheerleader. I just thought What the heck? It wasn’t like I was taking up banjo or carpentry, things I have no knowledge or skill at. I was kind of in my own backyard.
Do you feel you’ve experienced ageism?
Yes. Here’s my “favorite” story about ageism. Usually investor groups meet once a month, and they entertain new business pitches. They’ll get a hundred applications, and they’ll end up inviting 3 or 4 people to come pitch to them in person at their investor meeting. We must’ve gone to about 60 of those. And I went to one here in Silicon Valley, and I got a follow-up email which was fantastic, and the fella asked if I had time to come to his office and talk some more. And I thought Wow! This is great! And I went to his office, and he proceeded to tell me that I was far too old to be in this business, that it was a young man’s game. I was mortified. I said to him, “You called me into your office to tell me this? You could have sent me an email.” And he said “Well, I figured maybe I’ll make more of impression in person. What’s the difference?” And I said, “Well, the difference is if you’d sent me an email I might’ve been taken aback, but I probably would’ve forgotten about it in a week or two. But because you’ve done this, I’m going to remember what an assh*le you are for the rest of my life!”
Are there any unique challenges or advantages of becoming an entrepreneur later in life?
Challenges… There’s a lot of ageism that is insane and unwarranted and doesn’t make sense. Advantages… well, I know so many people. I’m not a bridge-burner. I have such a huge rolodex of people to call for help or advice. Some things I’ve done myself many times over. It’s hard to put a value on what all of that experience brings to the table.
This is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had in my life—and the most challenging too. But wow, does it feel rewarding! The little successes along the way—a new customer, you wrote yourself a check. That all came from you.
Do you have advice for people who would like to start their own business later in life?
Having a partner is great. [Editor’s note: Paul’s business partner is Elena Olivari.] Having someone to work with, celebrate with, cry with, collaborate with … it’s just so much better, and I think healthier.
If you think you’re onto something special, enter competitions. We entered competitions like crazy! If you search—and you don’t have to search that hard—there are new business competitions all the time in lots of different categories. Worst case is you win some notoriety. Best case is you win money! And you know, the application process is pretty tedious, but to be honest, once you’ve done it, there is a lot of cutting and pasting that goes on. We won many of the competitions (or were finalists or semi-finalists) and we won money, and we got exposure because the press is hungry for a feel-good story, so they cover these things. In my case, they got double benefits because it was about the environment and about an old guy. So they got to tell two stories. When you get an online story—if there’s a link to your website—it helps you in the google search engine. There’s nothing like having the New York Times link to your website. Do you know how powerful that is? Incredible. As a result, if you type in “molded pulp manufacturing,” we come up. We don’t make calls anymore. We just take inquiries form the internet. It took us a long time to get here.
Who inspires you?
My wife inspires me. She is such an incredible supporter. And she’s so positive about almost everything. So I’m inspired and envious of someone who can keep that kind of attitude in the world. And I’m inspired by young people, really young people, middle schoolers. There’s group of people out on the west coast called Heirs to our Oceans and they’re all about cleaning up the oceans and beaches. It’s so wonderful to see that kind of enthusiasm and passion in really young people.
I’m actually working with several other people on a new venture. It feels like the right time.
This interview has been condensed and edited.