When Sharon Lawrence was made redundant from her job as a personal assistant at the age of 50, she knew there was no going back.
“I thought: ‘That’s the last time it’s going to happen to me,’” says Sharon, now 55.
“I couldn’t see myself in another full-time job, and with all the skills I had built up over 25 years, I couldn’t bear the thought of going to an agency and being asked to take a typing test.”
Instead, she set up her own virtual PA business, Flying Changes PA, named after a dressage move that she makes on her horse Rasmus. She provides secretarial services, mainly to small companies that don’t have their own full-time secretary.
“I started from scratch, working from home and helping friends who then became clients,” says Sharon, who is located in Wigan in Lancashire. “I gradually built the business through networking and word-of-mouth recommendations from clients who have complete confidence in me and know how dedicated I am. I do everything myself, even if it means working through the night to meet deadlines.
“Being a virtual PA means you can have clients everywhere, from the local town to Dubai and Singapore. I have found my niche and am now in the happy position of being able to pick and choose my clients. I don’t make a fortune, but I am self-sufficient.
“Would I go back to working for someone else? Heavens, no!”
Sharon is one of a growing number of ‘olderpreneurs’ who are launching new ventures after the age of 50. New research by the Clydesdale and Yorkshire Bank found that around a quarter of Britain’s small businesses – more than one million out of a total of 4.7 million – are started by older people who had retired or been made redundant.
Over 611,000 of those small businesses were launched during the past two years, and olderpreneurs in their fifties or older are the largest group setting up on their own.
Tony: store owner
Tony Storer was made redundant at the age of 53, after 30 years working in the construction industry. After applying for dozens of jobs without success, he decided to open a shop selling household goods called Storer’s Store in the village of Swalecliffe, near Whitstable in Kent.
As he hadn’t run his own business before, Tony sought help from PRIME, the Prince’s Initiative for Mature Enterprises (set up by Prince Charles to help people over 50 to work for themselves).
“They were very helpful and offered a package of business advice. I was eligible to apply for an olderpreneur loan from PRIME through Zopa, which I needed to buy the initial stock and get the business off the ground,” says Tony. “I have since been able to pay off the loan.”
Tony, now 55, runs the store with the support of his wife Jackie. One of his biggest challenges was spreading the word.
“We have advertised locally and done leaflet drops, and of course set up our website, and now we have a steady flow of regular customers. This is a quiet area, though, and we are considering opening a second store on the main drag in Whitstable. It is much busier but of course the rent is also higher.
“It hasn’t been easy,” he admits. “There have been times when we have struggled, but I would never dream of giving it all up. I love working for myself.”
Prince Charles set up PRIME in response to letters he received from people who were desperate to work but unable to find anyone willing to employ them, purely because of their age. The organisation offers free information, workshops and networking events, and can provide start-up loans and refer people to business advisors.
Nick Bunting, who became the charity’s chief executive this summer, says: “Long-term demographic changes mean there are far more older people out of work than younger people, and this is likely to continue. So there is a greater need than ever for PRIME to assist people to re-engage with employment through enterprise.”
Lyndsey: shoe etailer
The royal family also gave Lyndsey Mundy’s company ZIMS an unexpected boost this summer when Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, visited Lyndsey’s stall at the Hay Festival in Wales.
“She admired our shoes and would have liked a pair, but we had sold out of her size,” says Lyndsey, 59, who runs the company with husband Nick from their home in Ludlow in Shropshire. “The story made the Daily Mail and the next day we had a flood of enquiries from America, where they are mad about the royals.”
The couple launched ZIMS in April this year, after being inspired by the handmade shoes they discovered in a small workshop in the Matapos mountains in Zimbabwe. Their range of lightweight, brightly-coloured suede and leather shoes are now produced by a manufacturer in Spain.
Lyndsey dipped into her retirement nest egg to fund the launch. “I wasn’t really looking for a business,” she says. “The idea came first and it all fell into place from there.
“I have worked for myself in the past as a reflexologist but have never run a business of this sort, so it has been a huge learning curve for me, getting to grips with issues such as registering a trademark and setting up a website. Luckily, Nick, who still works as a lawyer, takes care of things like VAT.
“At first we were just going to make a few shoes for men, but they proved so popular we launched a range for women this summer.
“In future, we will have to decide whether we want to expand the business, which would mean the loss of a certain amount of control. But right now small is beautiful. We still work from a spare bedroom and do our own despatching, though we outsource everything else, from packaging to design.
“As well as selling our shoes online, we enjoy going to events and meeting customers face to face. Our next big event is the Spirit of Christmas fair at Olympia in November.
“I didn’t start the business thinking I was in the last chance saloon, but I suppose there was a certain urgency and a feeling that it is now or never. It’s been hard work, but also very invigorating and it’s so satisfying to find that people really do love our shoes.”
Sharon says: “Don’t skimp when buying your office equipment. Buy the best you can possibly afford, as you are aiming to use it for the next three, four or five years.”
Tony says: “ Do thorough research into your area and your potential customers. I chose to open a shop in a village where there was nothing like it, and I knew there were a lot of pensioners who would prefer to buy their everyday household items in the local high street rather than hiking to the supermarket.”
Lyndsey says: “Accept that in today’s market you are going to have to use tools like Twitter and social media. All this offer lots more opportunities, but it also makes business much harder work as you can’t escape: the Blackberry is always with you and the emails keeping coming in.”
Further reading: Home working? You need the Jelly network