Business is booming for the UK's growing army of 'olderpreneurs'

The Walk To Work

When 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 took on an empty unit in a central Manchester shopping centre, and Three Minute Theatre began putting on sketches for shoppers.

They have just moved into a large former clothes shop in the same centre and had it converted 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 Topliff Frost. "I've discovered I'm a natural entrepreneur and I had no idea. I wouldn't do anything else now."

The couple are part of a boom in the number of people aged 50-plus who are starting businesses for the first time. These "olderpreneurs" are looking at poor pensions and realising that they are healthier than their parents' generation at the same age. So 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 older people are likely to emulate them in 2014.

"I have experienced ageism, but I just laugh in the face of it," said 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's 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 over-50s who want to start their own firms. Topliff Frost got help from the Prince's Initiative for Mature Enterprise (Prime), an extension of the Prince's Trust, which has long aided young people to start up in the business world.

The number of "olderpreneurs" is growing. In 2009 there were just over 1.5 million people aged 50-plus registered as self-employed. Now that figure stands at 1,766,000 – an increase of more than a quarter of a million. Around one in five people aged over 50 is self-employed, a higher proportion than for any other age group. Indeed, most entrepreneurs are in their 50s, not their 20s. They are more successful, too: more than 70% of businesses started by people in their 50s survive for at least five years, whereas only 28% of those started by younger people last that long.

Older people's enterprises tend to be smaller and in the service sector, catering or producing craft items. A quarter of "olderpreneurs" started their businesses after redundancy and 12% started after retirement.

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 this year and hopes to exceed £300,000 a year in five years' time. "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 had to do financial reports and you've already seen marketing plans in action. Overall, I'm really excited about starting a business at this time of my life."

As 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 either bankrupt or not badly off, so many have the start-up capital to do it," he says.

In London, Valerie Hufton, 55, is handing around cream-topped fairy cakes to her Prime course mates as she presents her business plan for the cafe-cum-art-gallery-cum-gift shop she is about to open in Derbyshire. The business is to 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 they decided on a change of direction. They travelled through south-east Asia and the idea of a gallery hit them when they saw fine art works for sale in Cambodia.

"I wanted to do something with this art to get more money into the communities we had been visiting," explains Valerie, 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 we are nervous because we're putting about £58,000 of our savings into it."

They plan to start operating on 31 January. "I'm really excited about starting a business at my age. What we have found strange is that the businesses we have visited to take over are being sold by people just a few years older than me. They're retiring while I'm just starting."

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Gareth Rubin, for The Observer on Sunday 5th January 2014 06.00 Europe/London

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