Franny Martin, 70
How: Creating a cookie delivery business
Age the hard work paid off: 56
Advice: If your business idea is the only thing on your mind, do it
Franny Martin's career took her down a marketing path, and at one point she was national director of marketing and public relations for Domino's Pizza. But her heart was always in the kitchen.
She spent much of her childhood baking alongside her beloved grandmother. Growing up, her father had encouraged her to follow her dreams. But when he was in the last stages of dementia, she asked herself the question that changed everything: If this were my last day on earth, is this what I would want to be doing?
The answer was no. So Martin put an end to her career in marketing and returned to the kitchen by establishing Cookies On Call. The company delivers a dozen preservative-free cookies for less than the price of a dozen roses.
"At an age when most people are looking at travel brochures to go to Florida, I said, no, let's go to Cookie Land," she says. "When I'm making cookies, I feel like I'm channeling my grandmother."
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Martin started out in her own kitchen. Then she rented the kitchen at a nearby grade school. Since then, she has moved three times and now owns her own facility. "I'm making more money now than I did in the corporate world."
More important, she says, "There's not one day since I decided to start doing this that I haven't been happy about it."
The company has expanded to offer cakes, bread and biscotti.
Key to success: "The care and feeding of owning a business is as close to having a child as you can get," she says.
Jeffrey Nash, 62
How: Inventing a baby walker
Age the hard work paid off: 56
Advice: Stay persistent and resilient
Jeffrey Nash had never designed a thing in his life, which makes his design of the Juppy — a wearable, cotton baby walker that can fold up and fit in a purse — all the more astounding.
Nash, a men's suit salesman who lives in Las Vegas, was attending his granddaughter's soccer game at a park when he noticed a young mother uncomfortably bending over as she struggled to teach her toddler to walk.
"I'd seen this kind of situation thousands of times in my life, and it never meant anything to me," he recalls. "But the very second I saw it, the Juppy came to mind — and it just wouldn't leave."
Unlike many older people, who are often hesitant to act on their ideas, Nash didn't wait a moment. The salesman — who still sells men's suits today, despite his riches — met with different tailors who helped fashion the object that he had in mind.
"The problem is, too many of us come up with ideas — and then talk ourselves out of it. We think of all the reasons why it won't work," he says.
Not that it was easy. To finance the product, he sold his home and car. He stopped eating out. Each prototype concept needed tweaks. And, with no experience in overseas manufacturing, he had to line up a foreign company to make the device in order to keep costs down. He had to learn how to market it, too — even standing outside a baby-products convention in Las Vegas holding a sign that said "The only baby walker that fits in a purse."
Key to success: "Once I have an idea, I stick with it regardless of the pitfalls or obstacles," says the former Marine, who says he is now a millionaire. And because he's older, Nash notes, he has an advantage many younger people don't have: patience.
Carol Gardner, 70
How: Turning her English bulldog into a licensing machine
Age the hard work paid off: 52
Advice: Turn your obstacle into an opportunity
Divorce didn't sit well with Carol Gardner. Not only did her husband leave her at age 52, but a massive debt fell on her shoulders. That's when her divorce attorney gave her the best piece of advice she ever received: "Get a therapist — or get a dog." She chose the latter — an endearing English bulldog she named Zelda.
Then fate stepped in. A friend suggested that Gardner, a former creative director for an ad agency, enter a local greeting card contest. The prize: one year's worth of dog food. Gardner decided to feature her sad-faced bulldog — dressed in a Santa costume — on the front of the card along with a punch line inside: "For Christmas, I got a dog for my husband. Good trade, huh?"
It didn't just win the contest. It won the public's heart.
Zelda became a greeting card phenomenon and, eventually, a licensing empire. Zelda once ranked among the best-sellers of all Hallmark cards. The Zelda Wisdom product line has made Gardner a very comfortable millionaire.
Today, Zelda (or Zelda No. 3 — the original died in 2009) has been licensed onto everything from cutting boards to cookie jars, and she sleeps at Gardner's bedside. Gardner's favorite card features Zelda wearing a bee costume with the one-liner "Why BEE Normal?"
Key to success: Have your work mirror your passion. To get started, "I wrote down everything that made me happy and that I was good at. My creative side is what I love to do."
Mary Tennyson, 70
How: Inventing the StashAll
Age the hard work paid off: 68
Advice: Go to your local SCORE chapter for advice on new business
When Mary Tennyson's 87-year-old mother fell and broke her hip, it changed both of their lives forever.
For Tennyson's mom, it meant using a walker to get around. For Tennyson, it meant trying to figure out how to keep her very independent and fashion-minded mom happy. That was hard — particularly since her mom, who had to regularly use the walker, liked to carry high-fashion purses that were prone to knocking walkers off balance.
"All Mom wanted was something for the front of the walker that would replace her bag and match her outfits," says Tennyson, who lives in Newport Beach, Calif.
After Tennyson's department store search for fashionable, walker-friendly purses failed to come up with even one candidate, she decided to design and make one herself. She pulled out an old sewing machine and created a bag that her mom could safely attach to the front of her walker. "She kept getting compliments on her bag," Tennyson says. "Friends in the senior industry kept encouraging me to develop a line of bags for seniors with walkers."
So she created the StashAll line — but not before retaining a consultant and seeking lots of help from the local chapter of the nonprofit SCORE, supported by the Small Business Administration. The bags, which are made from a variety of materials including synthetic leather, upholstery fabric and bark cloth, sell individually for $50 to $70.
The somewhat high price tag is, in part, because the bags are made not overseas but at a factory in Orange County, Calif. — where, Tennyson says, she can keep an eye on the quality and production.
Meanwhile, Tennyson, who loves to travel with her husband of 46 years, Peter, says she tries to keep time open for that. "I don't want to get stuck working full time again," she says. "I'm not so driven that I want to go to my grave from my desk."
Key to success: Seek out help from experts.
Wally Blume, 77
How: Creating Moose Tracks ice cream
Age the hard work paid off: 57
Advice: Know your business and be prepared to struggle
Wally Blume knows more about the innards of the ice cream business than just about anyone. His former employers know it. His competitors know it. But most of all, he knows it.
That's what gave him and his wife, June, the courage in 1996 to sell the family home and cars and just about everything, he says, "except our firstborn," to develop Denali Flavors, which supplies independent ice cream makers with formulas and ingredients.
The Grand Rapids, Mich., company's flagship specialty flavor, Moose Tracks, virtually changed the course of ice cream history. The now-familiar flavor, made with fudge, peanut butter cups and vanilla ice cream, has become an industry staple that, in many markets, sells almost as well as vanilla.
The success of Moose Tracks — which the company now makes in extreme flavors, including mint and with brownie pieces — has made Blume a millionaire many times over. Retail sales of Moose Tracks will hit close to $100 million this year, he says.
"We've been blessed beyond our wildest dreams," he says. But, he concedes, while it doesn't take a genius to mix fudge and peanut butter cups into ice cream, "it takes the blessing of God to have them sell."
Blume, along with his wife of 48 years, isn't done yet. The company recently rolled out Moose Tracks snacks and Moose Tracks-flavored milk.
As for the Moose Tracks name, that didn't take genius either. Blume borrowed the name from a miniature golf course next to the dairy where he once worked. "We thought the name felt cold and pristine — like ice cream," he says.
Key to success: Take risks, but become an expert at what you do, "and be prepared to lay everything out on the line."
Tim & Nina Zagat, 76 & 74
How: Publishing restaurant guides
Age the hard work paid off: 60 & 58
Advice: You must have a vision and do something you love
Tim and Nina Zagat got fed up being misled by restaurant reviews from clueless critics.
Both were attorneys in Manhattan at the time and shared a passion for great food. So instead of believing the critics, they opted to concoct their own restaurant guides based on the opinions of those they trusted most: their friends.
They surveyed 200 friends and colleagues about New York restaurants and mailed the results to all participants. That was the humble beginning in 1979 of the Zagat publishing empire — now owned by Google.
"We believed that getting the shared experiences of many people was more accurate than one person's view," Tim says.
The hobby became all-consuming. They desperately wanted to print a New York restaurant guidebook, but publishers all rejected it as being too local. "Only because they all turned us down, we did it ourselves," Nina says.
Even then, Nina says, they had to fight for success — including battling printers who scoffed at their tight deadlines. That's when Nina developed her favorite motto: "Don't tell me it can't be done."
The couple went door-to-door, urging bookstores to carry the guide. Both Tim and Nina ultimately left their law firms to work full time on the endeavor and finally, in 2000, found major investors to back their guidebook efforts nationally and internationally. Now they are multimillionaires.
Key to success: "You have to get up in the morning and love what you do," Tim says.