En español | For three decades, David White earned his livelihood as a technician in a huge chemical plant. Working 12-hour shifts all those years, he dreamed of being his own boss.
"I never liked working in the chemical plant," said White, 57, of Bristol, Tenn. "I wanted my own business."
Taking early retirement a decade ago, White jumped at the chance. Today, he owns a thriving business, a Heaven's Best carpet-cleaning franchise.
White credits much of his success to expert business counseling from SCORE, a nationwide nonprofit association that pairs aspiring businessmen and -women with mentors, most of them retirees, who have extensive real-world experience. Close to 445,000 clients met with SCORE mentors or attended SCORE workshops in the past year.
White credits his mentor, Gary McGeough, with giving him lots of ideas "that a new businessperson needs to know" — pointers about negotiating the contract for his franchise, the facility location and the area of service, for instance.
McGeough, 63, had a long career in offshore oil exploration and aerospace, then spent 10 years running his own business installing Murphy beds in California. In 1998, he sold the business, retired to Tennessee and started volunteering at SCORE, where he has counseled hundreds of would-be entrepreneurs.
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'Do what you say you'll do'
McGeough offers deceptively simple advice: "So many people don't do what they say they'll do. I learned that if you actually do what you say you'll do, you can be a success. That's what David's doing."
When White first approached SCORE for advice, he knew generally what he wanted in a business: something that would keep him not at a desk but up on his feet, moving. He liked the idea of having corporate support through a franchise. He chose carpet cleaning, even though he'd never cleaned a carpet, because it would keep him going to different locations.
He now works five days a week, roughly 9 to 5, cleaning carpets at homes, offices, colleges and even on boats and airplanes. He has one full-time and two part-time employees, but he still goes out himself on every job to check quality.
"It's been great," he said, although he concedes starting his own business wasn't easy, especially the first three years when he often worked nights.
White earns the highest compliment from his mentor, who says, "I use his services every chance I get."
Mentors in their 60s
Close to 13,000 volunteer mentors work with SCORE's 354 chapters around the country. Founded in 1964 as the Service Corps of Retired Executives, SCORE operates with a $7 million grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration. The individual and online counseling is free, though SCORE charges nominal fees for workshops and seminars.
SCORE helped start 68,000 businesses in 2009, said W. Kenneth Yancey Jr., the organization's chief executive.
The work is often intergenerational. Only about one in four of SCORE's clients is 55 or older, but the average age for mentors is low to mid-60s.
"What our clients are doing is recareering," Yancey said. "They're having encore careers after they've finished their primary careers. We see individuals later in their careers starting businesses on the side. They might start a rental property company or a consulting firm or buy a franchise."
'A remarkable time to start a business'
Entrepreneurs need all the help they can get — the odds of long-term viability in a small business are daunting. The Small Business Administration says half of all new businesses fail in five years.
And yet, Yancey said, "a significant number of Fortune 500 companies started in recessionary times. This can be a remarkable time to start a business," especially in markets where service industry companies have folded, creating space and need for new ones.
SCORE doesn't keep track of the five-year survival rate of its clients' businesses. But it has success in getting them started.
Before linking up with SCORE, surveys show, about a third of its clients were considering starting a business, a third were in the process of starting one and a third were actually in business. After completing SCORE's mentoring program, roughly two-thirds were in business.
The first six quarters are the most difficult for a new business, Yancey said. "We help people assess the feasibility of their idea. Can they not only survive but succeed? We help them with an overall plan so they have a good idea what to expect."
The SBA also offers help for new businesses at more than 900 Small Business Development Centers around the country (plus hundreds of subcenters on college campuses) and 100 Women's Business Development Centers. The Commerce Department, meanwhile, has 43 Minority Business Development Centers nationwide.
Dorothy Kennett of Bloomington, Ill., a former elementary school teacher, school media librarian and children's bookstore owner, took early retirement from Illinois State University in 1991 after suffering a stroke. During her convalescence, she traveled to South Africa with her son, and there she saw students who were both undereducated and lacking in books.
"I couldn't stop thinking about them," she said. She later founded a nonprofit aimed at bringing more reading material to these students. Since 2001, her organization, Books for South Africa, has established three full and 16 traveling libraries.
A valuable service
Kennett, 73, is now a SCORE mentor. In her view, many would-be entrepreneurs have misconceptions. For instance, they think the Small Business Administration provides free money to get companies started. But at SCORE, she said, "we can talk to people and listen and see how realistic their plan is. That's a valuable service."
Each client's situation and story are different. What's unrealistic for one might be feasible for another. Some entrepreneurs need income, while others seek personal fulfillment.
Ric Cox, 66, consulted with SCORE before he started ChicagoCondosOnline.com in 2001. Cox had taken early retirement from Readers Digest in New York, where he'd been an editor. He also worked 10 years for the minister and author Norman Vincent Peale. Moving to Chicago for retirement, Cox spotted a need for a comprehensive website with information about the condo market. So he set one up. It has information, floor plans and legal documents on 13,000 condo buildings.
"I haven't made a dollar yet in nine years," said Cox, who runs the business on a laptop in his condo, "but I didn't start it to make money. I wanted something creative to do."
Possibly a profit at last
At SCORE, Cox had free sessions with an accountant, a marketer and a technical consultant who introduced him to a website developer, advice that saved him thousands of dollar. "For somebody struggling to keep the costs down, SCORE is a tremendous resource," he said.
Now Cox has sold licensing rights for his website to two real estate companies and is negotiating the sale of his virtual business to a major real estate player. His goal is to make a profit at last. After that, he says, he may move to Hawaii and really retire.
Marsha Mercer is a freelance writer who specializes in health and workplace issues.