'Without the loan, it would have taken years'

One-fifth of new businesses in Britain are started by the over 50s - and they're usually more successful than their younger counterparts. So why is youth valued so highly?
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Encouraging enterprise and increasing the rate and success of business start-ups in the UK is a key Government policy. There are myriad entrepreneurship initiatives, enterprise programmes and business start-up schemes designed to encourage more of us to set up our own businesses.

However, the focus is almost exclusively on encouraging young people to become entrepreneurs. If you are over 50 and want to set up a business, you are on your own.

Sometimes it is stated explicitly, in projects such as the Young Enterprise scheme or the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship. But more commonly, it is an unstated assumption that entrepreneurship is driven by the dynamism and energy that only youth can provide.

The Chancellor himself, a regular speaker on the subject of encouraging enterprise, often unwittingly couples the notion of entrepreneurship with youth.

In a speech to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in November 2005, he said that his upcoming pre-budget report would "set out the next steps to encourage young British people with ideas to become entrepreneurs with profitable products." No mention of any older people who may have ideas.

What would Ray Kroc say? The founder of McDonald's didn't open his first fast-food restaurant until he was 52 years old, after a 25-year career selling paper cups and food mixers. Or John Pemberton, the small-town pharmacist who came up with the recipe for Coca Cola when he was 55 years old.

Focusing exclusively on young people as entrepreneurs immediately disenfranchises that quarter of the population who are aged over 55. It is also an approach that ignores the reality. Around one-in-five new businesses in the UK are started by the over 50s and they are twice as likely to be successful as their younger counterparts.

The emphasis on entrepreneurship as something for the young ignores the strengths that age can bring to new businesses.

There's also the fact that the over 50s are an increasingly powerful demographic group, not to mention a wealthy one. There are estimated to be around 20 million consumers over the age of 50 in the UK - and who better to understand and meet their needs than their enterprising peers?

Dr Clive Winters, programmes director at Coventry University Enterprises (CUE), believes that there are clear advantages to starting a business when you are over 50. "You've got a lot more commercial experience; a lot more life skills; you've probably got a bigger network of contacts; and you're probably more realistic about what you want to achieve," he says.

Winters is head of CUE's Vision Works programme, which offers office space, IT access and expert advice to people thinking of setting up a business in the West Midlands.

Earlier this year it launched a pilot programme targeting the over 50s. Traditional enterprise support tends to focus on younger people, he says, raising awareness in schools, colleges and universities; providing financial support schemes; offering specific training programmes. But very little of that support is available if you are over 50. "We are not downplaying the importance of young entrepreneurs, and the programme is open to them as well, but we recognised that there was a huge need to try and reconnect older people with the enterprise agenda; to make sure it is on their list of opportunities and give them the support to pursue their ideas," he says.

Older participants often have different requirements: Vision Works training tends to be more focused on updating existing skills; it provides one-to-one coaching and mentoring and it organises networking opportunities. There is no age limit on the programme.

Indeed, one of its most successful graduates is 73-year-old Paul Appleford. A regional manager with IBM for 21 years, Appleford is now a management consultant with a thriving practice. He has clients as far away as Russia and South Africa.

Like many older entrepreneurs, he initially set up his own business to top up his pension, which on its own was not sufficient to cover his living costs. Already trading for several years, he enrolled on the Vision Works programme in 2005.

"I was conscious that the training I'd received at IBM, although very useful, didn't give me everything I needed. It was 10 years out of date at least. I needed to reassess what I knew; where I was going; and what I needed to get there," says Appleford.

He attended a three-day crash-course with Vision Works and was assigned a personal mentor to coach and advise him in managing his business. He says that it gave him the reassurance that his business was worth pursuing. "It was extraordinarily useful to go through this reassessment process. It gave me the confidence that I still had a lot to offer and that I'm not ready for the scrap heap yet," he says.

Appleford believes that there is enormous entrepreneurial potential among older people that is not being harnessed. He says some of the energy that is spent encouraging young people to become entrepreneurs should be re-directed towards older people. "The focus is on younger people and making them aware of the training, the support and the opportunities. But there is a stack of older people with considerable business experience already who would jump at the chance to start their own ventures, but it's just not something that is on their radar," he says.

Getting entrepreneurship on the radar of more older people is one of the key objectives of PRIME, a charity dedicated to helping people aged over 50 set up in business.

Established on the personal initiative of the Prince of Wales, PRIME (the Prince's Initiative for Mature Enterprise) is now part of Age Concern. It campaigns to increase awareness of the opportunities for self-employment among the over 50s and to improve the support that is available to them. It works with existing enterprise support agencies, such as business links and regional development agencies, to help them ensure that advice and support is made available to the over 50s and it provides loans to mature entrepreneurs who have tried and failed to obtain finance elsewhere. It also undertakes and publishes research in the field.

Over the past four years it has lent just under £400,000 to 87 individuals, with an average loan of between £3,000 and £5,000.

Laurie South, the chief executive of PRIME, says that as well as being hindered by ageist preconceptions, older entrepreneurs face practical difficulties in pursuing their business ideas.

He says it is often harder for those over 50 to obtain financial support because their age places them in a higher risk category. They may also suffer from a poorer credit rating due to a lack of collateral, particularly a problem for older women who previously stayed at home to raise a family. Insurance is harder to obtain, too, and considerably more expensive even when you do find it. Finally, South says that older people can't access the free training that is routinely available to younger people.

"If you want anything more than a basic computer course, you will probably have to pay for it yourself, and that can sometimes be a significant sum," he says. He believes that part of the problem is that it is relatively easy to target enterprise support at young people, through schools, job centres and colleges. But those channels are not as effective in reaching older people.

"It's easy to send someone into a school to talk to the pupils about enterprise. It's much more difficult to reach a 56-year-old in rural Kent. Therefore, a big part of the challenge is to find alternative ways of getting the enterprise message out," he says.

Given that one in three of the population will be over 55 by 2025, the already teetering pensions system and the Government's recently announced drive to cut the number of people on incapacity benefit - half of whom are aged over 50 - it is not a challenge that we can ignore for much longer.

It took Mike Crisp (above) 30 years to achieve his ambition of setting up his own business. Four years on and HouseHubbies, the handyman business he set up when he was 58 years old, employs nine people, with another 137 on the dababase eager to be taken on to its books.

Staffordshire-based HouseHubbies provides a one-stop shop for home repairs and maintenance, anything from tidying the garden or mending a faulty door lock, to fitting a new bathroom or decorating the living room.

Crisp's innovation is the fixed-fee method of charging he uses. Customers pay a fixed fee for a visit from a "hubby" based on an amount of time, usually a day or half-day. Within that time period, the hubby will do any jobs the customer wants doing.

"It may start with fitting new taps in the kitchen. Once that's done, we may move on to the garage door that keeps sticking, or put up some new shelves in the lounge. The important thing is that the fee is the same no matter how many jobs we do while we are there. It takes away the fear and unpredictability of calling in a tradesman," he says.

Prior to starting HouseHubbies, Crisp spent 10 years in the RAF and then worked for many years as a systems engineer in the UK and Saudi Arabia. When he returned to the UK he realised that his age was a barrier to finding work. So, in his mid-50s, he decided to go to university to improve his education. Four years later, he emerged with degrees in both Law and Psychology, but with no money and no job.

"I applied for many jobs, but when they saw my age they weren't interested. My only option was to set up my own business. It was something I'd always wanted to do, but had never had the courage or the opportunity," he says. He already had the idea for HouseHubbies, but his major obstacle was finance. He says that his lack of collateral and age commade him virtually untouchable in the eyes of the banks.

"Over the phone, when I told them I was a graduate, they were very positive. But as soon as they met me and they realised how old I was they clammed up. We never even got to the form-filling," says Crisp. With the help of Mature Enterprise Support, a PRIME partner in Stoke-on-Trent, he developed his business plan and got in touch with PRIME. He applied and received a £5,000 loan - actually the first loan that the organisation had made.

"It was a huge help. Without the loan it would have taken me years to get HouseHubbies up and running. As it is, the business is thriving and we are looking to expand into other regions," he says.