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Startups serving senior market see big opportunities, challenges ahead

October 20, 2015, 11:30 AM UTC
Elderly Care
A senior couple can be seen dancing in this file photo.
Photograph by Jason Sanqui — Getty Images

The average age of the Breezie customer is 86, says Jeh Kazimi, founder and CEO of a British company that provides a simplified tablet interface for older adults. Meanwhile, “the average age of my team is about 28,” he explains. It’s just one of the unusual situations entrepreneurs who create products for seniors must navigate.

Breezie strips tablet applications down to their most basic form— Skype, for instance, could be accessed by simply tapping a loved one’s photo and saying “video call” into the device’s microphone—so they’re easier to use and manage. The company’s 28th iteration of its popular tablet software hits the U.S. this month, says Kazimi.

“We have spent tons and tons of our time working with seniors, understanding what they want,” he says. “There’s a lot of learning that goes into that.”

Crossing the multi-generational divide between a young startup team and their (much) older customers is one of several unique challenges faced by companies that cater to older adults. Other difficulties can include marketing products aimed at seniors who don’t see themselves as old.

“We’re sitting in this Ivory Tower and we’re deciding what seniors can and cannot do,” Kazimi says. “You cannot say what a senior can and cannot do.”

Startups willing to face these challenges will find a market ripe for this type of innovation, says Lisa Gundry, director of the Center for Creativity and Innovation at DePaul University. “It’s really worthwhile to look toward the senior market,” she says. “It’s a market that’s ready and waiting for innovative products and services. And it’s willing to pay for it.”

Despite the economic downturn, Gundry says, many older adults have a significant stash of disposable income. In fact, according to a report by Nielsen it’s estimated that baby boomers will control about 70% of the disposable income in the U.S by 2017. “There are huge opportunities out there,” Gundry says.

There’s plenty of room in the market for innovative startups to develop products and services for older adults that go beyond tech gadgets or health and safety tools, Gundry says. “Seniors, and in particular baby boomers, lead very active and vibrant lifestyles,” she says. “They’re not necessarily waiting for the next version of Life Alert.”

That’s true, says Geoff Gross, founder and CEO of the Philadelphia-based Medical Guardian, which sells medical alert systems. And it’s why his company’s marketing message focuses on independence. “With our particular product, the largest challenge probably is perception of these systems,” Gross says. “Our clients don’t want to be old.”

The company’s spokeswoman is Florence Henderson, who is best known for her role as the mom on “The Brady Bunch.” Henderson, who still travels the country at 81, lives alone and has a Medical Guardian unit, Gross says. “She’s not in bad shape,” he says, “but she is our client and we wanted to get that across to people.”

Reaching older adults through advertising can be tough for startups, which sometimes rely heavily on social media over more costly marketing. “When it comes to advertising,” says Kazimi of Breezie, “we’ve relied a lot on print.”

But startups shouldn’t discount the power of word-of-mouth marketing among older adults. “They talk a lot,” Kazimi says. “And the recommendations carry 45 years of friendship behind them.”

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