Starting a new business just before a recession could be foolhardy, canny or just bad timing. But older people who set out to create a business have an advantage. Maturity gives them the experience and the self-confidence to let instinct and intuition play a part in their most crucial decisions.
The following business people, whose radical career changes in their 50s coincided with the end of the boom and the beginning of near bust, knew that they needed to do things differently. They wanted the freedom to work hard at something they enjoyed and were good at. They trusted their judgement and had the courage and determination to pursue their dream. And they proved that if you believe passionately in what you are doing, not even the worst economic conditions in 80 years can hold you back.
Simeone Salik, co-founder of BLINDSINABOX, launched early 2008
Before her marriage in 1963, Simeone Salik worked in the PR and marketing office of Liberty’s department store in London’s Regent Street. She continued to do so until the birth of her first daughter Stephanie (now 44 with three children).
“It was the norm in the early Sixties for a woman to stay at home and look after the children”, she says. “We had two more daughters, Lee and Jodie – now 41 and 39 with five children between them – over the next seven and a half years and I brought them up myself. However, when the first went off to university, I decided to work with my husband Gordon, an optometrist who worked from home. We worked together until he was about to retire in late 2003 at the age of 65.
“We had decided to downsize our home and were lucky enough to buy a plot of land in North London and build ourselves a ‘retirement’ chalet-bungalow incorporating all the equipment we felt might be necessary in our older age – raised toilets, shower seats, easy handles in the kitchen, etc.”
Curtains were the very last thing that she and her husband thought about as they furnished their new home. As an interim measure she tried to obtain temporary, easily installable ones, but they proved impossible to find. Remembering some she had seen abroad, it suddenly occurred to her that she had stumbled on a gap in the market.
“I suggested this to my interior designer Janice Dalton, and together we decided to go into business – right in the recession – at the beginning of 2008. We called the business BLINDSINABOX found a young supplier with an import business, Dominic Lawrence, to come in with us and then set up our website, www.blindsinabox.co.uk.”
The beauty of the idea lay in its simplicity. Available in just one size (3ft wide and 6ft long) and two colours, white for general use and black for total blackout, the pleated blinds cost £39.10 for a box of six and are easily trimmable with a utility knife. No other tools are needed – they peel and stick and have two clips per blind for opening and closing.
“At first we started to sell over the internet in a modest but encouraging way, and I discovered that my PR skills returned to me like riding a bike,” Simeone recalls. “We were mentioned in the national and regional papers, where a scout for the BBC saw us and asked us to apply to appear on Dragons' Den, the BBC2 show for budding entrepreneurs.
“Initally we said no but were persuaded to do so and appeared on the show on September 1, 2008. Two of the ‘Dragons’, Duncan Bannatyne and James Caan, invested in us and our business, one year from going into the Den, is flourishing. On the programme our first year’s projected turnover was £50,000. In fact we turned over £120,000 in that year and now will be distributed in Spain, Germany, South Africa, Southern Ireland, Australia and the UK. We are also stocked in Argos stores.”
Asked to identify her principal motivation for going into business in her late sixties, just as the recession bit, Simeone replies candidly: “I wanted to have some means of combating the deficit in our pension and savings that the Government and economic conditions have caused us. and I do hope I have found a means of doing so.
“I would also say to people of retirement age that working keeps your brain active, gives your children and grandchildren a reason to be proud of you and makes you a real part of the 21st century.”
BLINDSINABOX, 020 8455 8699, www.blindsinabox.co.uk
Lynn and Bill Sayer, owners of The Millpond Camping and Caravanning Park, Herefordshire which opened in March 2008
The Millpond, with its wide spaces of green between the tent and caravan pitches, is surrounded by lush and gentle Herefordshire countryside. Moorhens skitter over the grass, and anglers doze over their rods along the edge of the lake.
“It was a shock at first, says Bill Sayer. “We had just an ordinary garden in Northampton so we thought small when we started searching for sites. But somehow we bought a 26 acre park and a 3.5 acre fishing lake.”
It was a dramatic change for a couple in their mid 50s. The Sayers, with mortgage paid and children - a son and daughter in their 20s - off their hands, were at the age when many couples are planning to put their feet up.
“I had run my own training consultancy teaching presentation skills, image in business and developing courses specifically tailored to clients’ needs,” Bill continues.
“But working as a sole trader for 27 years was exhausting. I wanted a change.”
When a friend happened to mention that the Camping and Caravanning Club were looking for franchisees, Lynn and Bill leapt into action. They applied that very night.
“Running a site would give us all we wanted”, said Bill. “A people-focused business where I could practice what I’d preached, where we could work together and develop the business the way we wanted.”
The couple sold their house, banked the money and moved into their tiny touring caravan. Lynn, a client director for a call handling company, kept her job while Bill worked 15 hours a week on the tills at Asda and scoured the country for suitable sites. It took him two years.
At times they thought of giving up but having gone so far there was no going back. At their lowest ebb in May 2007, still living in their caravan, they heard of a site for sale just outside Hereford.
Bill was daunted by its size but Lynn immediately realised its potential. Their offer was accepted and in August they moved in. When the season finished the hard work began. The site needed much updating and renovation.
On top of buying the property the Sayers paid a £30,000 franchise fee to the Camping and Caravanning Club and now, as owners, give the Club 10% of the site fees and pay an annual charge of £7,000 for IT support and marketing.
“So, in our mid 50s we’d gone from no debts to a mortgage of £670,000,” said Bill. “It was a big risk. We put everything into this – savings, pensions, equity from our house - it was a no turning back situation.”
During the winter of 07/08 the Sayers, still in the caravan and living solely on Lynn’s earnings, set to work. When they opened on March 1 2008 a new road, a shop and a laundry had been added and the number of electrical hook-ups increased.
“It was hard work,” said Lynn. “We did everything ourselves – meeting and greeting, cleaning the toilets, un-blocking drains, helping with minor emergencies. We’d start at 7am and finish about 11pm with a final tour of the site”
All the effort paid off. Now, at the end of their second year and in a time of recession, turnover has all but trebled and the value of the park increased by over 30%. Already part of the village community, the couple, who sell good local produce in their shop, feel at home in the countryside. “We love it here”, said Bill. “It can be hard going at times but it is very satisfying. We are working for ourselves and we both love it. We are so glad we didn’t give up during the dark days.”
The Millpond Camping and Caravanning Park, 01432 890243 www.millpond.co.uk/caravan.htm
Susi Lennox and Sarah Brooks, co-founders of Yes Pure Intimacy, manufacturers of organic health and personal care products. The company launched in late 2006
Susi Lennox was in her late 50s leading a successful life as a management consultant working in the petrochemicals industry when she reached a point when she felt she needed to re-invent herself. Her business partner, Sarah Brooks, whom she had known as a colleague and friend for years, also wanted a change. Sarah, a chemistry graduate who became a star sales woman and global high-flyer initially with Exxon Chemicals in Southampton, and then as an adviser to some of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical corporations, felt ‘burned out in mind and body’.
“We were drained by corporate life and wanted to go into business on our own in a positive way that made use of our backgrounds and our attitude to life”, says Susi.
“The idea that came out of the blue, to make and market our own range of internal personal care products, was perfect. It fitted our backgrounds and our passionate belief that pure products needed pure ingredients.”
Their company, Yes Pure Intimacy, makes the world’s only range of organically-approved lubricants and moisturizers for women. Water or oil-based and using only plant extracts the product was launched in late 2006 and is now sold in 44 countries including the USA and Japan and is available in 200 stores in Australia and New Zealand.
The women acknowledge that their work in developing ‘intimate’ lubricants sometimes provokes childish sniggers. But given that the market is worth an estimated $1.3billion per annum and that nearly 50% of the world’s population are potential customers, they are likely to have the last laugh. And having fun is clearly an important part of their business philosophy – after all, with tongues firmly in cheek, they chose to name their website yesyesyes.org
However, it had taken over three years of intensive work and research before the product was ready to be sold. “The analysis of competitors’ products revealed many concerning chemical ingredients, insensitive packaging and demeaning language,” Susi says. “We set out to create high-performing alternatives that, based on sound science would deliver benefits. Purity and discretion were key, combined with elegant ‘blush-free’ packaging and language.”
They had to find a suitable formula, conform to the trade descriptions act, create original product branding, set up a web site and a mail order business, investigate recycling, and more. To fund this major capital outlay they sold their houses.
“They were difficult times but we were determined not to compromise,” said Susi. “It took 92 trials, all meticulously logged, before we had the correct formula. Once this was tested by an outside source we asked friends and family to try the product.” The feedback was positive. They were in business.
Initially, the company sold in Britain only from the website. But in late 2008 Susi and Sarah made the decision to expand into High Street retail stockists and their products were put into health food stores and independent pharmacists across the UK.
Again, they took a risk – taking on the added costs of increased production, marketing and distribution at a time when consumer spending was hitting rock bottom. But they were unperturbed.
“Our sales were completely bucking the trend then as now,” Susi recalls. Sarah nods assent, pointing to a textbook example of a perfect graph on the wall, with the all important line rising inexorably upwards.
“As you see, sales have grown by more than 7% month on month since the launch. We now employ nine people and need bigger premises. It’s been hard work but I’m glad we followed our instincts and stuck to our principles.”
The icing on the cake was when the company won the 2009 Triodos Bank Ethical Small Business of the Year Award, sponsored by Ecover, in association with The Times.
So, recession or not, Susi and Sarah are certainly having the last laugh – possibly all the way to the bank.
(Yes Pure Intimacy Ltd. 08456 448813, www.yesyesyes.org)
Rod Broad, owner of the Venture photography studio, Knightsbridge, London. Launched early 2009
“Although my degree was in aeronautical engineering I didn’t get near an aeroplane when I left Bristol University,” said Rod Broad in the viewing room of his photography studio just a few minutes' walk from Harrods.
“The aeronautical world was not buoyant when I graduated in 1972,” he continued. “Rolls Royce was in bad shape while the development stage of Concorde was mainly over; few graduates got the jobs they wanted”
But Rod, born in Birmingham, now living in Maidenhead, stayed with engineering. For 20 years he worked in the water treatment business focusing on company restructuring and negotiating acquisitions. He became managing director of several concerns and was responsible for companies in Holland, the USA and Australasia.
“Although they were busy, fulfilling years,” said Rod. “I still managed to enjoy my hobby, photography. Then my wife was diagnosed with cancer. Sadly for us all she passed away in 2002. The children, Mike and Helen, were 19 and 15. It was not a good time for us. We just kept busy. You’ve got to keep going. As I wanted to reduce my time away from home I moved to managing a smaller UK-based company.”
Later, a company takeover caused Rod to re-evaluate his life. “It was the third takeover I’d been involved with. I was 57; it was time to call it a day. I helped hand over the business, agreed a departure package and wondered what to do next. Early retirement didn’t appeal. I did some business consultancy work, but I also wanted something I could run myself.”
The idea of combining his love of photography with his management experience took him to the Venture stall at an NEC franchise exhibition. He felt that a photographic business, with some 65 professional studios throughout the country, might provide the answer.
It did, but in a way far more dramatic that Rod anticipated. On December 23 2008 as he was driving to spend Christmas with his sister a call came from Venture.
“A studio in Knightsbridge had gone into administration. Was I interested? A decision was needed by 4pm on Christmas Eve. It was the chance of a lifetime. I took it. I had built up businesses for others, now I could build one for myself and my family.”
Normally, Rod could not have afforded a Knightsbridge studio but buying from the administrators, although more complicated than a straight sale, got him a favourable price. His background in acquisitions and take-overs stood him in good stead as the first three months of 2009 were a whirl of negotiation, resolving issues and paperwork. But by agreeing to keep on the young, keen and supportive staff, including three well-qualified photographers, he was able to keep the studio open.
“We were a team from the start”, he said. “This was important as the recession had kicked in and things were not easy. We advertised in shopping malls, had open days and exhibitions and gradually people started booking and phoning for appointments. Now, near the end of the first year, the business is just getting back into profitability. I love it. I am doing something that is mine and I take the decisions. I am a fortunate man, doubly so now in that my son, who has a degree in photography, has joined the studio.”
Venture Knightsbridge, 0207 225 9070, www.thisisventure.co.uk