“No, it’s not a hobby” - Starting a business in your 50s
Theresa Goble and Morag McLaren became entrepreneurs for the first time in their late 50s when they felt that the time was right and they had the skills to build a sustainable business. Their company Vox Integra provides training for professional singers and delivers courses worldwide. As both cofounders approach their 60s and have 35 years’ experience each in their chosen profession, they’ve had some interesting reactions to their entrepreneurial adventure.
If you’ve developed a reputation in your chosen profession it can come as an unwelcome surprise when you experience resistance to starting your own business. We were asked at a recent pitch to a large potential client whether Vox Integra was ‘just a hobby’. We couldn’t be more qualified, we certainly put in the time and effort, like all entrepreneurs, yet we experienced this patronising questioning of our motives and abilities.
We’re hardly ready to be put out to pasture yet and both continue to work professionally as singers. We’re also passionate about passing on our knowledge and so starting a business that supports the next generation of classical singers feels exciting and worthwhile.
When our company, Vox Integra, was selected for the Guildhall School of Music & Drama’s Creative Entrepreneurs programme, a business incubator designed for performing arts companies, we knew that our vision made sense. What we learned during that programme, and the insight we drew from our own careers, has helped us create a service that is unique and in demand.
Although the archetypical first-time entrepreneur is often shown as a wet-behind-the-ears youth working out of their parents’ back room, or a high-tech mastermind isolated from the real world, we believe that the experience and insight a seasoned professional can bring to a new business gives us an edge.
There’s no perfect age to start a business but if you’re interested in taking the leap, whatever age, here’s what we learned:
· Have faith in your abilities – as an individual with years of experience you probably have a large network of top practitioners to draw upon and have developed a sixth-sense about what will work in the services or products you’re developing. We have the kudos of being able to call upon some of the best in the business. Robin Bowman was head of vocal studies at The Guildhall School of Music & Drama and, having auditioned more than 20 thousand singers, there are few in the world who know more about auditioning. Having him join our team of associate tutors puts us in a unique position and it’s something that sets the business apart from any other start-up.
· Do the groundwork - it’s ok to have an idea and it’s great to have the inspiration but you need to be practical about the business itself. You need a good business plan, you need to understand cashflow, you need to get your marketing in order. We learned a lot on the business incubator and were pushed to question every idea, do our research into the market, and work on the pitch. You can’t afford to waste money so get the help you need and learn from others.
· Recognise the need to juggle – They call people our age the ‘sandwich generation’, often responsible for the care of parents and still looking after children. Starting a business takes a lot of work and, on occasion, real life can get in the way. Don’t fret, working for yourself also allows you to determine your own schedule. It might be relentless but it’s possible and our advice is ‘just go for it’. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. You’ll learn as much from the things that go wrong as the things that work – most probably you’ll learn more.
· Keep up to speed – the world hurtles on at breakneck speed and you’re going to need to stay on top of the business trends and become familiar with new ways of working. The business world’s reliance on social media was something that was outside our area of expertise so we needed to bring in help to make sure we were taking advantage of the virtual world in the way that would best support our business. You can’t succeed in a bubble so keep engaged with the business world around you and ask for help when you need it.
As creative professionals, we’re always learning - it’s part of the job - and it’s never too late to take on a challenge. Frank Lloyd Wright was 76 when he started work on designs for the Guggenheim Museum. I doubt anyone asked him if he was doing it ‘as a hobby’. Whatever age you are when you start your business, you’ll need to rely on what you know already, your professional reputation and your stamina to make it work. We feel that having a few more years’ experience than the conventional entrepreneurs gives us something that money can’t buy and something our clients are happy to pay for.