Jane Pauley: AARP's "Your Life Calling" Ambassador
Devin Dopp, Ed.D.: Chief Operating Officer, SCORE: Counselors to America's Small Business
Online visitors to AARP.org/jane
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Jane Pauley: Welcome everyone! From the responses we got to our first live chat, it looks like we’ve struck a chord. I’m delighted you enjoyed our March 9 discussion and the debut of AARP's "Your Life Calling With Jane Pauley," which had its premiere that morning on NBC's Today show.
I’m delighted to introduce my guest for this chat, Dr. Devin Jopp, chief operating officer for SCORE, which is a national non-profit organization that provides free counseling and low-cost training to aspiring entrepreneurs and small business owners. Dr. Jopp is joining me to take your questions and comments about how to go about starting your own business, particularly in mid-life.
This morning's Today show segment featured Thomas Betts, who at age 50 went from being a salesman to becoming an alpaca rancher. Maybe you’re thinking about making a similar leap yourself. If so, Dr. Jopp will tell you you’re not alone.
Comment from Linnea: How can you find the "thing" you want to do with your life when you are close to retirement. I don't want to retire from life. I want to stay busy and wouldn't mind my own business but I don't know where or how to start.
Pauley: Linnea's question is a good one to start with. From what I've read, experts often advise testing your assumptions before you start your business. They talk about the importance of identifying the category of business that might interest you, and checking it out by getting a job doing that type of work so you can see what it's like. Having said that, I'll now turn to my partner today, Dr. Devin Jopp, who is one of those experts.
Dr. Devin Jopp: Thank you Jane. When someone is thinking about starting a new business, they need to identify their personal goals and what they're passionate about. At SCORE we'll talk to a person about what they want to pursue and then explore those ideas. We explain that it's important that they gain some experience by working in the field they're choosing. They need to identify whether or not there's a market for their business idea, and they need to decide it it's something they can see themselves doing five years from now.
Comment from Arlene L.: Has the marketplace been receptive to new start-up businesses by people over age 50?
Pauley: I think the statistics would say an emphatic yes to that. People over age 55 represent the fastest growing segment of new businesses and, if I'm not mistaken, Dr. Jopp will correct me, most of these new businesses are businesses of one.
Jopp: Yes, Jane, exactly. In fact 90 percent of new businesses in the U.S. consist of people who employ only themselves. Our counselors at SCORE provide free business counseling and low-cost training to aspiring entrepreneurs and existing business owners. The skills range from basic business planning all the way to bringing a business online, especially concerning topics such as imports and exports.
Comment from Jini: Hi Jane and company. Must tell you that having started a floral art and landscaping business back in August 2009, things are going well. There is nothing like pursuing your dream when passion is your motivator!
Pauley: Jini's business reminds me of a woman I read about who loved flowers, and her dream was to have a flower shop, but she wisely got a job for a couple of weeks in a flower shop and discovered how much she hated running a business. She hated the paperwork, payroll, dealing with clients whose taste in flowers may not have been her own. It turned out that she loved flowers but she didn't love running a flower shop. It took her two weeks to realize that her dream of running a flower shop needed to be amended. Do you know of stories like that Dr. Jopp?
Jopp: Absolutely. We often find that it's the entrepreneur who loves a hobby that, when they make their hobby a business, they feel it's less fun and not their interest. This is where mentoring comes in. Because entrepreneurship can be very lonely, we talk about creating a team of people a business owner can count on for advice.
Comment from Lorraine: I left the corporate world after 31 years 11 years ago. I'm busier now than ever. Retirement to me means doing what you want when you want. Jane nailed it this morning when she said you need to have been thinking about this before taking the plunge. I had been a hobby gardener and had always been able to write well. Now I'm a garden writer and have been for over 10 years with a gardening column and a recently published book. Two years ago I took some jewelry classes and have begun to sell some of what I make—just in time, too. My aging body is getting tired of digging in the dirt!
Pauley: Lorraine is leading an interesting life with a background in the corporate world, as well as skills in gardening and writing. Now she's talking about taking jewelry classes and has begun to sell some of her creations. I have a friend with a hand in the jewelry business, so I happen to know it's really, really competitive. Can a counselor help someone assess what the income likelihood is in a job or in a business they're proposing to start?
Jopp: Yes. One of the things we do initially is evaluate a person's goals and help them have an understanding of what they can achieve by starting their business. Our counselors have been there and done that. They bring their expertise and intelligence to the entrepreneur.
Comment from S. Starks: Jane, you mentioned "synchronicity" during the Today show segment. Talk more about using it to discover, explore, uncover new job opportunities and directions in post-corporate America.
Pauley: I've noticed that several people are talking about synchronicity. A person's life experience, skills set, innate lifelong interests can be redeployed in surprising new ways. When I spoke with Tom and Connie Betts at their alpaca ranch, I learned that each of them brought actual experience in marketing, in innovating and in inventing. They are each the kind of people who like doing hard things, such as learning to use a loom, which has a lot in common with playing a pipe organ which, parenthetically, Thomas referred to when said that he had been a music major in college. So he didn't just strike out to see if he could do new things he had never done before. However, he was surprised he could do the same things he had always done, but it would be on a ranch. The context was new but he was still the same Thomas, which made the transition particularly effective. His wife, I must add, was not only supportive, but she brought unique qualifications to that joint project of theirs. As I mentioned on the segment, Connie grew up on a farm. She also had experience teaching high school biology, and that science training has a great deal to do with alpaca ranching and breeding. Thomas and Connie came well-prepared to alpaca ranching.
Comment from Daniel A.: What are the biggest challenges entrepreneurs face when starting out in mid-life?
Jopp: Entrepreneurs in mid-life face a number of challenges. One of them is income. When working full-time, your family relies on that income. Making the choice to become an entrepreneur can be very difficult, not only on your finances but also on your family. Jane talked about a spouse. A person's spouse really is their most important partner in business. Making sure you can afford entrepreneurship financially, as well as emotionally, is very important. We often talk about tolerance. How much can you take?
Comment from Annie P.: What's the best way to go about gathering data as a way to tell if there's a fit for what you're wanting to do, and the community you're in?
Pauley: How do you research it, Dr. Jopp? I can imagine opening, say, a fashion boutique might be something that would be interesting and intriguing, unless you do some research and find out that your community already has a lot of fashion boutiques, so maybe it doesn't need another one.
Jopp: There are some easy ways. One of your best friends is a search engine. Go to Google or Bing and type in what you want to be, and then see how many of those businesses are already in your area.
Comment from Patricia W: We're missing a piece here. You have to develop courage and confidence before you even begin to do a restart. I'm an age transition specialist and this is what I deal with. It's really, really important.
Pauley: Patricia makes a point I can really relate to. She says it takes courage and confidence to even begin "restart." Some people just have courage and have confidence and can restart, but a lot of us are feeling like there's a big party going on "over there" and we don't quite fit, we feel kind of left out. One important way to develop courage and confidence is to take little steps. A friend of mine enrolled in a certificate program to update a decade's old college degree. It gave her the confidence to get a volunteer job where she did so well she developed the confidence to eventually start a business. Her first step was to build her confidence by getting a little extra training.
Jopp: I would add that starting a business can be very scary. I talked about risk, and how you want to break it down. Figure out your pitch. Write down your ideas. It doesn't have to become monstrous overnight. How do you eat an elephant? Bite by bite.
Comment from Jeanne P.: I am actually past retirement. But I can never retire, as I'm single and cannot live on Social Security alone. Plus I'm "young" at heart. I just need to focus on whatever my passion is while I work to earn a living. I need help blending the two, and I think I need help discovering my real passion. I recently published a book of poetry, which certainly is one of my passions, but I didn't have money for marketing, so here it is on my coffee table. Can I develop my writing so that it actually earns money?
Pauley: I'm not sure that writing poetry ever made anybody any money. I guess I would suggest that Jeanne look at her poetry writing as the thing she does to nurture her creative spirit while pursuing a different way to earn some money. What would you say to that Dr. Jopp?
Jopp: The question is how do you take your idea and turn it into something profitable. The people that started Mountain Glory Creations were retired and loved photography. That led to a money-making business creating calendars and computer screensavers. Maybe inspirational greeting cards using poetry can become a viable business.
Comment from Barbara: If my life calling is what I've been doing as a hobby—painting and showing my art in my community—how can I make it into a profitable business? I'm over 55.
Pauley: Dr. Jopp, how do you examine a proposition like this? Maybe selling paintings is the literal implication of this question, but how would one of your volunteers help Barbara brainstorm about how her connections in her community might lead to something other than selling works of art? Are there different directions that her art might take her?
Jopp: Selling art directly can be a rough business. But are there ways Barbara can be a wholesaler of her art, such as on etsy.com, where people take their artwork or make t-shirts or trinkets and sell their crafts online. There may be a way to combine painting with a commercial product that there's a bigger market for.
Comment from Mark from Dallas: What kinds of businesses are faring best?
Jopp: Actually, the pet industry continues to be a bulletproof industry to start a business in, whether it's dog grooming or dog treats. We have a company in North Dakota that started selling pet treats to help dogs avoid allergies. They started selling online and now have a storefront. Restaurants are one of the most difficult business in general, and especially in this recession.
Comment from Jini: Is it wise to set a timeframe within which a business should or might succeed?
Jopp: A timeframe is good, but focus on testing your idea. Let's say you have two or three good ideas. Don't let time dictate to you. Take the right amount of time to explore those ideas and what's right for you.
Pauley: May I add to that a reminder for those who saw today's "Your Life Calling" profile on the Today show about Thomas Betts and his alpaca ranch. Thomas and his wife did not just take the plunge. He spent nine months managing somebody else's alpaca ranch while he decided if it was work he liked and work he could do. The Bettses took time to determine if alpaca ranching was something they could make a go of.
Comment from Joyce H.: I think it's important to know what you don't like or want in order to narrow down what you do like and want. As a coach and trainer, this is an extremely helpful tool that I have people use.
Pauley: Joyce makes a counterintuitive but correct observation. Most people really would have trouble answering the question, "What do you like best about your work, and what causes you the most stress?" People don't think about that kind of question until the time comes to decide what they'd like to do if they could do anything. Dr. Jopp, do your counselors help people brainstorm about what they like and don't like?
Jopp: Yes, our counselors walk our clients through that process. We often counsel more on personal issues than business issues. Whatever business you choose has to make you want to get out of bed in the morning. Your business has to add meaning to what you're doing or else it becomes a significant chore.
Comment from Ron A.: Most people have no idea where to start. I'm a retired dentist and I'm very proud of what my 63-year-old wife has accomplished. With help and guidance from a few old war horses in the food industry that recognized her talent and potential, she has achieved a high level of success with more to come. See missbonnies.com. Keep up the good work!
Pauley: Dr. Jopp, do people tend to rush in pursuing their business dreams?
Jopp: Most people are impatient when it comes to their dreams. People envision success and are eager to achieve. We tell clients they have to build a foundation. They have to plan and think through ideas. They have to think about how they are going to do it, and what "it" will look like in three to five years. Taking that time adds so much value to making a dream successful.
Comment from Claire: I've been a widow for two years. I moved to the northeast to be near my children. It has been very difficult to make friends here and is too expensive to stay, but I feel totally stuck and don't know how to even begin to start over. I think I would like to move, find a job, volunteer, etc., but I feel overwhelmed.
Pauley: Claire, my advice is to do one of those things: take a step, make a move, either get a job or volunteer. Spend the next month deciding which of those things you would most like to do. Then maybe take another month looking for a place, or the job or a volunteer position, and by July be doing it. Would you like to amend or correct or argue with me, Dr. Jopp?
Jopp: I would like to agree with you Jane and add, as we see with our volunteers, that people are looking for meaning. How do they give back to the community? Stay relevant? Enjoy what they are doing? Jane's point of "moving to action" is excellent.
Pauley: I have another question for you, Dr. Jopp, because I really understand where Claire is coming from. Is there a way to prepare yourself to become an effective volunteer? I, for one, could see myself knocking on a door to be helpful but not really knowing what it is I could contribute. How can a person prepare to become the volunteer they would like to be?
Jopp: I think a lot of it is identifying your passion. It's so important. Find out what causes you are most passionate about. Perhaps you were a banker. You could help a small business grow. If you want to help the homeless, there may be organizations that would be a good fit for you.
Pauley: I would like to draw people's attention to the poll we've been taking online. There's a question, "If you’re planning a career transition, when will you make the leap?" We're really talking about reinvention when we say career transition. I think a lot of people aren't really thinking about career necessarily, or even a job. The work that defines us isn't necessarily paid work. At our age our parents and grandparents were winding down their lives, not thinking of starting them up again.
Dr. Jopp, here's a question from me: What if your job was mothering? What if you didn't have a background in marketing, but you raised a family. What if someone asked you what your passion was, and you felt you didn't have a good answer because your passion has been your own family?
Jopp: That's a great questions and it goes back to exploration. You may want to try out a couple of organizations and see what you can get involved with. As a mother, you probably have one of the hardest jobs. A big part of volunteerism is nurturing, whether at a local hospital or homeless shelter. You don't have to have business experience or business skills to serve in those roles. When you're in your 50s you have a great opportunity to look at ideas you want to pursue.
Comment from D.L.: I am somewhat talented in the party decor world so I've volunteered to do projects for people and in my community. People all love my work and me, but trying to break from a volunteer position to wanting to get paid, people look at that differently. How do I get people to pay for my work? It’s like my mother always said, "Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?" Help!
Pauley: I have a suggestion for D.L. Use your volunteer party decor expertise to start marketing yourself. If your party decor is that good, take pictures of it and create a website showing some examples of what you've done in the past. And I don't think your website needs to say "P.S. They didn't pay me for this." If you're good, the work will speak for itself and people will come knocking at your door.
Jopp: We've noticed in the last several years that we're getting a lot of people in career transitions volunteering for SCORE because it allows them to add the experience to their résumés.
Comment from Arlene L. Earlier in the chat you gave some information about the number of new businesses started by people over age 50. Are these mostly cottage industries?
Jopp: They're not just cottage industries. Many people pursue franchises. A couple of clients opened up a Sylvan Learning Center, so don't feel like you have to limit yourself just to cottage industries.
Comment from Claire: Are there any organizations or places to get "help" with these decisions?
Pauley: Dr. Jopp will have some ideas, but I would like to suggest that this is the start of a solution to one of the problems you discussed having. I sense that you're feeling isolated. Perhaps you can find a way to round up some women in your area who are feeling like you do and just brainstorm this question among yourselves. You might get some good ideas. The worst that can happen is you come away from the gathering knowing each other a little better and having a cup of coffee. In the meantime, you might want to join The Reinvention Group at AARP.org. You'll find a nonstop conversation going on and you can be part of it.
Jopp: In answer to Claire's question, SCORE counseling is free. We are funded by the Small Business Administration. We have 360 locations across the United States. Go to SCORE.org for more information.
Comment from milastone: I think you made a great point about the nine months that Thomas the alpaca guy took before delving into the alpaca business. I dream of having my own family business. I'm thinking of working in a kitchen on a campsite so I can better understand the depth of owning a restaurant and managing a business, but I'm nervous about it. Any advice?
Pauley: I'm not the pro here, but why limit your options to a kitchen on a campsite? Why not make a project over the next couple of weeks of visiting a restaurant where you feel you might fit, and then apply to one for a job?
Comment from Jeanne P.: Jane, your comment about mothering fits me. My passion was my mothering!
Pauley: Jeanne, you don't ask a question but you inspire a thought. Sometimes our primary passions are so powerful, like mothering, that they cloud our ability to recognize any other interests. For those of us whose passion was mothering, we need to make a real effort to possibly set aside that passion and make a sincere exploration to ask, "What else interests me? What else was I famous for among my friends? What else would I like to get even better at than I am now?" All the books I've read about reinvention tend to agree on the notion that people need to be reintroduced to themselves. That was certainly true for me.
Comment from George K.: I'm not trying to amass a fortune. My goal is to encourage all age groups to pursue a healthy lifestyle that is ageless and timeless. To date, I have invested a great deal of time and energy creating a website that features exceptional athletes ages 50 and above. How do I get the message to the public without a great deal of marketing investment?
Pauley: George, I'm no athlete. That won't come as a surprise to anyone! But having more time than I did when I had a full-time job and three kids at home, I started exercising in my late 50s. I'm a swimmer. I realized that I probably have not been as physically fit since I was a junior high school cheerleader. I've seen research recently that talked about how fitness can be achieved at any age, but the advice was to start small, and then you get stronger. I can remember when swimming 10 minutes without stopping was remarkable. I called it my personal best. Today, I do 30 minutes and I say to myself, "You go, Jane!"
Jopp: The great thing about marketing today is that the Internet is the great equalizer. If I were you, I would invest time in using social mediums like Facebook, Twitter, and other tools to talk about what your company does in an educational manner. You'll be shocked at the great results you can achieve with very little money.
Comment from Jini : Jane, maybe instead of the word reinvention, reaffirmation should be used. A lot of people start out in their youth with great promise and then come to realize that their career path was not controlled by them. Reaffirmation of oneself would allow for the "now mature" worker to reaffirm where they want to go.
Pauley: Jini, that's a wonderful phrase, and I encourage you to take that phrase back to the AARP.org Reinvention Group that I referred to earlier. I think you have a lot to say, as does everyone who has been generous with their ideas and presence today. Let's keep this dialog going. Thanks everybody!
Jopp: Thank you Jane, and thank you everyone for the wonderful questions.
Pauley: Thank you to Dr. Jopp and our online visitors for participating in today’s live chat as part of AARP's "Your Life Calling" series. Catch me on the Today show on May 19, where I'll be bringing you another great story about someone who is working to hear their life calling. Please visit AARP.org/Jane for more resources and inspiring stories about reinvention.