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Starting Over at 55
By Steven Greenhouse. Published in the New York Times.
Link to the original newspaper article.
AFTER 24 years as a marketing manager for Coors, Cinde Dolphin knew what was coming - Miller and Coors had just merged their United States beer operations, and hundreds of jobs were sure to be eliminated.
Worried that these youth-oriented companies might lay off an old-timer like her, Ms. Dolphin decided to take a buyout and relax. She sunned on the beaches of New Zealand, went whitewater rafting on the Yampa River in Colorado and saw friends and Broadway shows in New York.
But after a few months, she realized that she missed working. So at age 55, she began applying for marketing jobs, confident she would be quickly hired because of her Coors pedigree.
"About four months into my job search, I realized I wasn't getting many callbacks," she said.
A Sacramento resident who has survived three bouts with cancer, Ms. Dolphin is not one to give up easily. She decided on an alternate tack - she would start her own business and thus join the nation's fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs, those age 55 and above.
Mining her decades of experience, she created a marketing and public relations firm that helps California winemakers get their message out through Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
"I'm having a ball," she said. "I can set up my own hours and work schedule, and do other things I enjoy."
More than five million Americans age 55 or older run their own businesses or are otherwise self-employed, according to the Small Business Administration. And the number of self-employed people ages 55 to 64 is soaring, the agency says, climbing 52 percent from 2000 to 2007.
Like Ms. Dolphin, some use money from a buyout to finance a new company. Some of these entrepreneurs were already retired, but after seeing their 401(k) retirement plans plunge in value, created a business in a quest for extra income. Some had lost their jobs and, after months of searching for work, started a business to make ends meet, perhaps catering, cabinet making or doing photography.
But experts on starting a business strike a cautionary note. "The first piece of advice is don't buy the mythology - all you need is a new idea, that you wander out there, you run your own B.& B., you start your nonprofit and all the birds are singing," said Marc Freedman, founder of Civic Ventures, a group based in San Francisco. "That's what you'd think if you pick up some of these money magazines. This is a pretty daunting decision, and it's also a risky one.
"People should start with some realism about what it takes to do this. It's important to realize that this is a trajectory that can last 10, 15, 20 years. That means take some time to prepare, whether it means going back to school or doing an apprenticeship. There's no need to succeed at the very first attempt at this. There's room for readjustment and regrouping."
Ms. Dolphin agreed that starting a business was definitely not a cinch. Complicated contracts and legal matters needed to be worked through, and she needed to get up to speed on Twitter. (At one point, she hired a 20-something Twitter tutor at $25 an hour.) But now she is well on her way to success, having lined up Story Winery and two other wineries as clients.
"A business adviser told me, 'Take a leap of faith, and you'll see you're more knowledgeable than you think,' " she said. "I think other people can do it, too."
Deborah Russell, director of work force issues at AARP, said one factor driving older Americans to go into business is that because of the downturn, unemployed people age 55 and older have been out of work for 36 weeks on average.
"A lot of these people have a lifetime of knowledge, skills and networking they've amassed, and it's very easy to use all of that to start a business," she said. "At the same time, we caution people not to invest their retirement savings into risky start-ups because if you lose your retirement money, you can end up worse than where you started."
A study by Babson College and Baruch College found that Americans age 55 and above started 18.9 percent of all businesses created in 2008, compared with 10 percent in 2001. The 55-and-overs are playing a larger role in entrepreneurship partly because the number of Americans in that age category is rising rapidly. (The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College found only a small increase in the percentage of those older than 55 who are self-employed since 2001, although it found a spurt upward since mid-2008.)
One entrepreneur is Bob Mello, 57. He was teaching English at a preparatory school in Bay St. Louis, Miss., when Hurricane Katrina destroyed the school - and his job along with it. Helped by government funds, the mansion where Sydney Pollack filmed "This Property Is Condemned," released in 1966 (with Natalie Woods and Robert Redford), is being restored, to be used as a theater. Part will be used for plays, and Mr. Mello, pursuing his love of film, will turn part into a 100-seat repertoire movie theater.
"It seemed like a thing I'd like to do," said Mr. Mello, who is doing this for money as well as love.
"I wish it was just a hobby," he said. "Since Katrina, I've been substitute teaching and doing odd jobs, just trying to pay the bills."
He is hoping a friend will donate $20,000 worth of projection equipment. "This is pretty small scale, but it's daunting," he added.
The federal government has numerous programs to help older entrepreneurs. Traditionally, laid-off workers cannot obtain unemployment benefits unless they are looking for a job, but in 10 states, they can continue receiving jobless benefits if they show they are setting up a business instead.
The Small Business Administration has a Web site that offers advice and expertise to entrepreneurs age 50 and older. The site says age 50 to 70 is "the perfect time to leverage experience, passions, hobbies and resources to launch or purchase a small business."
Norberto Bogard took advantage of the Small Business Administration's offerings. A year ago, he lost his job as a reporter for a Spanish-language financial news program that Bloomberg News broadcast in Latin America. His job search yielded just one offer, which would have paid far less than his old job.
So he struck out on his own. "It was my dream, just to have my own business," he said.
A devotee of Time Out, the popular culture guide, Mr. Bogard was amazed that nobody had created a Spanish version for New York. So he founded Pie Derecho (Spanish for "right foot"), a free magazine that publishes 10,000 copies a month and relies on advertising for revenue.
"I was surprised that nobody was pursuing this particular niche," he said. "I knocked on the doors of many investors, but nobody wanted to support it, so I used money from my severance package. It was scary."
He took the Small Business Administration's free courses on starting a business and legal matters for start-ups. And for advice and encouragement, he often turned to a mentor, a small-business owner whom a Hispanic business group had recommended to him.
Mr. Bogard expects to break even with his March issue, his seventh month of publication.
Mr. Freedman of Civic Ventures observed: "There's a growing number of people over 50 who are entrepreneurs. That network can be a real source of support and knowledge. That's no reason to go it alone."
Civic Ventures gave its award for social entrepreneurship to Robert Chambers, who, as a car salesman, grew angry about the unreliable cars and high-interest loans often pushed on used-car buyers. After quitting that job at age 56, he founded a nonprofit company that helps low-income people obtain deals on reliable, fuel-efficient cars.
His company, Bonnie CLAC (Car Loans and Counseling), based in Manchester, N.H., has arranged low-interest car purchases for 1,200 people. He sees it as a way of giving back.
"I had enough assets to retire, but I got very passionate watching low-income people getting taken advantage of in the car business," he said. "Being over 55 and the experience I had was important to making this work."
Jeri Sedlar, a consultant on career change and an author of "Don't Retire, Rewire," said two types of people start businesses: those who always planned to, and those who cannot find a job.
Those who planned to start a business "have a leg up," she said. "They have an idea what it takes to be an entrepreneur."
The others "want to use their current skills and market those skills to new clients," she said. But she warned that many of these entrepreneurs stumbled because they did not know how to market themselves or did not have relevant or current skills.
"People have to keep up on their skills, keep up with the latest," she said. "You need to be sure you are really a valuable asset. The entrepreneur of today has to be motivated not just to know their skills and the job, but to be constantly challenging themselves. Every day they have to be reconfirming to their clients, 'I'm good, I'm on top of things. Age is not a factor.
Here I am doing it.' "
Ms. Sedlar said entrepreneurs needed to create a realistic budget and should not rush to rent space for an office or workshop because that could mean high fixed costs.
She recommended testing the waters before plunging in. "You have to try this on," she said. "You can't just hold your own counsel. You have to have your own sounding board. It could be your accountant, your banker, your lawyer, your therapist, your trainer. You can't just talk to yourself."
Marcia Duhart figured that out on her own. During her final years at Merrill Lynch, where she trained people to use computers, she devoted several days off to testing her idea of teaching computer skills to the elderly. When she taught a few classes at East Windsor Senior Center in New Jersey, people flooded in.
"People said they'd go to a family reunion and everyone was doing e-mail and they felt out of the loop," Ms. Duhart said.
After retiring from Merrill Lynch in 1998, she founded CyberSenior Services, teaching at senior centers and giving one-on-one classes for $35 to $45 an hour.
"My business spread by word of mouth," she said, adding that some days demand was so great that she left home at 9 a.m. and returned at 7 p.m.
"I've had students up to 90," she said. "I'm 67 now, and I have a lot of energy to do this because I do what I love. I love teaching people."
Howard Stone, an author of "Too Young to Retire," warned that starting a business can be emotionally grueling because it can mean lots of rejection in struggling to get clients and customers. He said new entrepreneurs needed to retain their confidence and know how to present themselves.
He warned older entrepreneurs not to go overboard and work 50-hour weeks because that could be exhausting and dispiriting.
"We do our best work when we set a balanced lifestyle," he said. "Instead of saying, I'm semi-retired, say I'm semi-working."
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Disclaimer: As a Health Coach, I will never attempt to diagnose, treat, make claims, prevent or cure any disease or condition. I advise my clients that Health Coaching is not intended to substitute for the advice, treatment and/or diagnosis of a qualified licensed health care professional.