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In the UK, more seniors turn entrepreneurs

LONDON — When Ms Gina Topliff Frost, 56, and her husband, John Topliff, 57, were made redundant in 2011 from their jobs as drama teachers, they decided to start their own theatre. They started Three Minute Theatre in an empty unit in a central Manchester shopping centre and began putting on sketches for shoppers.

People above the age of 50 in the United Kingdom get help from the Prince’s Initiative for Mature Enterprise to start their own business. Photo: Bloomberg

People above the age of 50 in the United Kingdom get help from the Prince’s Initiative for Mature Enterprise to start their own business. Photo: Bloomberg

LONDON — When Ms Gina Topliff Frost, 56, and her husband, John Topliff, 57, were made redundant in 2011 from their jobs as drama teachers, they decided to start their own theatre. They started Three Minute Theatre in an empty unit in a central Manchester shopping centre and began putting on sketches for shoppers.

The couple recently moved into a large former clothing store in the same shopping centre and converted it into a fully functioning theatre with a capacity of 70.

“We knew that, at our age, we would find it hard to get a job, so we took a risk and went for it,” said Ms Topliff Frost. “I’ve discovered I’m a natural entrepreneur ... I wouldn’t do anything else now.”

The couple are part of a boom in the number of people aged above 50 who are starting businesses for the first time. These “olderpreneurs” are looking at poor pensions and realising they are healthier than their parents’ generation at the same age. Thus, they are rejecting the received wisdom that enterprise is a young person’s game and striking out on their own.

As the state pension age is gradually raised to 68, more seniors are likely to emulate them this year.

“I have experienced ageism, but I just laugh in the face of it,” said Ms Topliff Frost.

“I just say I’m qualified to do it and I’ve got a lot more experience than you, so what’s your problem?”

But it has not been plain sailing. “It’s very tricky running your own business. You’ve got to be creative — you have to come up with solutions to problems.”

Colleges and voluntary bodies now run training courses for those above 50 who want to start their own firms. Ms Topliff Frost got help from the Prince’s Initiative for Mature Enterprise (PRIME), an extension of the Prince’s Trust, which has long helped young people start businesses.

The number of “olderpreneurs” is growing. In 2009, more than 1.5 million people in their 50s were registered as being self-employed. Now, that figure stands at about 1.77 million — an increase of more than a quarter of a million.

About one-fifth of those aged above 50 are self-employed, a higher proportion than in any other age group.

Indeed, most entrepreneurs are in their 50s, not their 20s. They are more successful too: More than 70 per cent of businesses started by people in their 50s survive for at least five years, while only 28 per cent of those started by younger people last that long.

Enterprises started by seniors tend to be smaller and in the service sector, catering or producing craft items. A quarter of “olderpreneurs” established their businesses after redundancy and 12 per cent started after retirement.

Ms Hilary Farnworth, who used to teach a Forward at Fifty course at London Metropolitan University, training women in entrepreneurial skills, said: “The women have many reasons for choosing self-employment. Some regard it as the only viable option in a culture where they feel employers are ageist; some have a long-held passion to work for themselves and realise time is running out.”

A year ago, former software designer Rod Boyes, 51, started Pinegrove Leather, which produces cases for musical instruments and tablet computers. He expects to turn over £20,000 (S$42,000) this year and hopes to exceed £300,000 a year in five years.

“I imagine it’s harder for most people of my age striking out on their own because we have responsibilities such as mortgages or children at university,” he said.

“And when you’re older, you haven’t got so much energy. But there are benefits: You have a lot of experience so, if you were a manager, you have already done financial reports and have already seen marketing plans in action. Overall, I’m really excited about starting a business at this time of my life.”

Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of Glasgow Ron Botham carried out research into the motives for older people to set up businesses.

“Having worked for someone else, many older people think they can run a business better than their boss and, nowadays, people in their 50s and 60s are ... not badly off, so many have the start-up capital to do it,” he said.

In London, Ms Valerie Hufton, 55, is giving out cream-topped fairy cakes to her PRIME course mates as she presents her business plan for the cafe she is about to open in Derbyshire, which also functions as an art gallery and gift shop.

The business will be named Because I Like It, with the slogan Wine, Arts, Teas and Tarts. It was when a cancer scare last year coincided with her husband, Nigel, 45, being made redundant that the couple decided on a change of direction. They travelled through South-east Asia and the idea of a gallery hit them when they saw fine artworks for sale in Cambodia.

“I wanted to do something with this art to (give) more money to the communities we had been visiting,” explained Ms Hufton, who previously managed a purchasing system in the travel industry.

But setting up the business has not been smooth. “There are highs and lows. Last week was a low because it looked like the whole thing had fallen through. Now, I’m on a high because we’ve managed to rescue it and are nervous because we’re putting about £58,000 of our savings into it.”

The couple plan to start operating on Jan 31. “I’m really excited about starting a business at my age. What we have found strange is that the businesses we have visited (so we can) take them over are being sold by people only a few years older than me. They’re retiring while I’m just starting.” THE GUARDIAN

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