Network: The over-fifties go online

Setting up a company to help older people get to grips with the Net has been a learning experience for its two young founders, but now they're going from strength to strength.

By Rachelle Thackray
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:36
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IT has been a roller-coaster year for the Internet duo Emma Solomon and Caroline Lambie. Their scheme, Hairnet, which they founded in 1997 to help the over-fifties get to grips with cyberspace, has seen plenty of ups and downs. On the plus side, scores of customers have passed through their portals, emerging full of enthusiasm for the wonders of the World Wide Web and boosted by newfound self-esteem. On the minus side, fairy godmothers clutching wads of cash and waving guarantees of overnight success have proved to be just that - apparitions.

However, it seems that a happy ending is finally in sight for Hairnet. Solomon and Lambie are to launch a new series of courses in conjunction with a chain of Internet cafes, and they are exuberant about plans for Britain's first senior citizens' Web community, for which they hope to get funding.

"We didn't want to go back to working for bossy men," says Solomon, 28, who teamed up with Lambie after the latter left the Virtual Publishing House, which she established with a former boyfriend. Both had come to information technology relatively late: Lambie, 25, after studying art history at the Courtauld Institute, and Solomon after a languages degree at Oxford. "I remember at an interview three years ago being given a set of tests to do on a computer, and I didn't even know how to turn it on," she admits. "The woman came back and said: `Why isn't your computer on?' I said: `I like working in longhand.' She thought I was completely retarded."

This down-to-earth honesty has endeared Hairnet's founders to their clientele, who come from a huge potential constituency of people who grew up in pre-computer times and feel excluded from IT through fear, incomprehension and other people's attitudes, or a combination of all three. "So many courses are taught by people who have lived and breathed computers, but they speak an alien language," explains Lambie. "They exclude people right from the start."

Not that the pair are beginners: their Web design company, Electra, has done work for clients such as GMTV, the Saatchi Gallery and, currently, the Royal Commission on Historic Monuments. But they admit that running their own business has involved some steep learning curves. A constant source of amazement is the lack of outside financial support, despite the worthiness of their mission to reskill Britain's ageing population.

They have, however, learnt some salutary lessons about the world of business, after an article in a national newspaper last June set the phones ringing with offers of venture capital and general advice. "We had phone calls from so many strange old men, faxing us bits of advice about what we were doing wrong," laughs Lambie. "We're not saying we're experienced in areas such as business development, but a lot of people meddle; they promise the earth and then waste your time. That's what happened to us," adds Solomon.

An apparent benefactor stepped forward to offer new premises - at one stage, they were working out of a Brixton kitchen - and funding. But less than six months later, it had come to nothing. "We realised we had been abandoned in October. It's really gutting to spend months working to a different agenda only to see it evaporate," says Solomon. "We learnt a lot from that," Lambie adds quickly. "We were two young women and people wanted to `help' us. But at the end of the day they were just out to get a return on their investment. We felt people had really to agree with what we were doing. It isn't going to be a massively commercial thing, but it's very worthwhile."

It is clear that both halves of Hairnet feel stung by the experience. But though backers have failed to judge their potential and grasp their mission, the pair remain undaunted. Their resilient spirit shows in the fact that Solomon's Christmas present to Lambie was a jokey home-made board-game chronicling the company's disasters. Coming back to work after Christmas, they realised that they had to redefine their direction.

It seems that they cannot fail to succeed in the long term, if they have learnt from these early pitfalls. While a Microsoft report late last year indicated (misleadingly) that over-sixties use the Internet the most, others have not been slow to realise that the over-fifties are a cash- rich consumer seam with the leisure time to browse for products and services on the Internet. "This year, electronic commerce is going to take off massively," Lambie predicts. "Over-fifties are potentially very good consumers who might like to shop from home if they trusted it. I hate to be cynical, but that's part of the reason to get people online."

The pair have already noticed that the clients who come to them are increasingly better informed. For that reason, their original seven-week course will be superseded in April by two-hour modules that can be strung together, covering topics as diverse as basic PC knowledge, electronic commerce, e-mail and surfing with syntax.

Hairnet is also looking to recruit over-fifties with previous IT experience as trainers, to run the new courses. It has teamed up with the Costa Coffee chain and Cafe Internet, which is opening the first of five new London venues this month, and hopes to expand the idea nationwide. But commercial potential is not the principal concern of Hairnet's founders, who seem to be more interested in empowering their customers.

"As you get older, you have to unlearn things, and your memory goes a bit, so you need more repetition, but it's mostly confidence," says Lambie. "We get people to write down what they want. One man wrote that he wanted to control the machine because he felt it was controlling him. People have got this idea that computers do things without your knowing, such as eat up everything that you've done."

Solomon adds: "It's also [the fact that it's] non-linear, with layers of things, that did my head in completely at first. But with a bit of encouragement it can be enjoyable and fun, not stomach-churning."

Clients, they have found, are usually highly motivated, and may have a specific reason to learn; researching family genealogy, for example. Senior male managers on the course sometimes get a shock when elderly women are quicker to pick up the technology than they are. "Men are much more inclined to show off," Solomon says. "We get more women than men, and they tend to work quickly and unobtrusively. They are also more inclined to adapt."

She says that the social aspect has been a major factor in the course's attraction. One couple took it up as a retirement activity. Others have pursued romance as they have become competent on the keyboard. "We had a little e-mail flirtation on the last course. I peered over one woman's shoulder and saw what she had written. It had become common knowledge that the second row of the class had begun to be rather fruity."

Both Solomon and Lambie can see the advantages of building up a network of Hairnet clients as an active online community, where people can converse, exchange information about jobs and generally combat ageist Internet tendencies. There's even talk of a "New Deal" equivalent for those living in what is quickly becoming known as the Third Age. "There are a lot of missed opportunities," says Lambie.

It is clear that this pair are determined not to fall into that trap, or let adversity erode their enthusiasm. Or, for that matter, let any bossy men get the better of them.

Hairnet (0171-490 2943) or www. hairnet.org

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