Startup school for seniors

By Suzanne Noble

Suzanne Noble and Mark Elliott, Founders of Startup School for Seniors

Have you ever wanted to start your own business? Suzanne Noble, serial entrepreneur and positive age leader, shares how she has helped 170+ people over 50 gain the confidence to start their own business.

Starting one’s own business requires confidence and resilience. I should know. My Startup School for Seniors co-founder Mark Elliott and I have transitioned our careers numerous times, not always successfully. Most recently, in March 2020, due to COVID-19, I lost my part-time job, which had delivered me a regular income for over a year. The Airbnb room I ran to earn money to supplement my income was closed down. I am also a part-time jazz singer, and three months’ worth of paid gigs were all cancelled.

Within a month, I lost three-quarters of my income. And for Mark, he lost his university work as the Chinese students he taught classes on entrepreneurship didn’t return, and the business owners he coached shut down their businesses within days of the lock-down. Hence, his local council’s offer asking him to provide emergency business advice was a lifeline. These sessions were full of people over 50 stunned by the change in their circumstances. These kinds of lived experiences inform the work that I do, along with Mark, running Startup School for Seniors, an eLearning platform helping over 50s turn an idea into a business. As older people, both long term self-employed, we know firsthand how challenging it can be to find customers and generate a sustainable income. It can be challenging to market yourself when you may not feel valued and keep pushing when everyone thinks that the over 50s we’re serving don’t need any help, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

According to a recent article in Personnel Today, “The number of economically inactive 50-64-year-olds reached 3.5 million between July and September this year.” A report by the Resolution Foundation concluded that the pandemic had led to the most significant annual employment fall for older workers since the 1980s. Further data from the report shows that it takes those aged 50+ twice as long to find a job than any other age group.

We have seen 170 people graduate from the programme, with over a third making money before the eight-week programme is over — Suzanne Noble

While self-employment is not the only option, for many, the lack of opportunity to re-engage with full-time work is what leads many of our learners to come onto Startup School for Seniors. We help them rebuild their confidence, providing them with the skills, training, and peer to peer support to take their first steps towards being self-employed.

From market analysis, there is a gap in supporting those over 50 to become self-employed or set up their own business. Many have complex needs compared with other age groups for whom support is available. For example, one in five people aged 50+ has caring responsibilities.

Additionally, our eLearning programme suits those with health issues or limited mobility. In place, entrepreneurial programmes often struggle to support learners who may not attend classes that conform to a strict timetable for one reason or another.

The eLearning programme we have created mixes self-directed learning via over 25 hours of pre-recorded videos, mentoring from myself and Mark and a weekly exploration and collaboration session using Zoom. Funded by Ealing Council, Hammersmith & Fulham Council, and with a grant covering delivery to residents in Dorset, participants complete a pre-course questionnaire as part of their pre-requisite to access the material, including proof of eligibility for the program. The application allows us to establish a starting point and measure the distance travelled by the learner. It also sets the learning aims of each individual so that we can put in place a tailored support package.

In the first week of the eight-week course, we work on helping learners maximise the benefit of being on the course, familiarising them with the platform and helping those who struggle with technology to sign in. Aside from good wi-fi connectivity, we find that learners find the platform easy to use once they have logged in, disputing the assumption that the over 50s are technically illiterate.

Our students are diverse, from those with PhDs to others with less than three ‘O’ levels. The variety makes for a rich learning experience as participants share their lived and work experiences. Businesses created are equally varied, from those who want to generate an income from a hobby such as jewellery making, ceramics or baking to those drawing on their past corporate careers to become consultants. Nearly everyone who comes along wants to do something they enjoy.

For example, after sixteen years, Max Wallace, a Startup School graduate, was unfairly dismissed from working within the local community. He was devastated and struggled with his mental health. He says, “When Startup School came along, it was a godsend. There was hope there. Mark and Suzanne made me feel I can start my own business and showed me how.” Currently, Max is crowdfunding to raise money to refurbish premises in Hammersmith from which to launch his business, Health Defense.

Max Wallace – Health Defence

It takes those aged 50+ twice as long to find a job than any other age group — Resolution Foundation

Bren is another Startup School for Seniors student who, having seen the course advertised in the newsletter produced by her local council, Hammersmith & Fulham, decided to sign up. With no clear idea in mind for a business, she has started to explore how she could use her interest in place-making, history, and multimedia background to create a series of audio walks based upon the hidden history of where she lives. The result is Hammersmith Walks & Talks.

Bren Simson – Hammersmith Walks & Talks

It can be challenging to market yourself when you may not feel valued — Suzanne Noble

Mark and I are on our learning journey as a startup, launching our first programme in October 2020. We have seen 170 people graduate from the programme, with over a third making money before the eight-week programme is over. We’re very proud of the impact we’ve made, with 81% saying that they had sufficient business skills to start their business. Eighty-three per cent say they have generally become more confident about themselves through participation in Startup School for Seniors, and 67% said they are confident or very confident about their business moving forward. Having started as an eight-week programme, we’ve recently run a two-week intensive version, which was fast-paced but popular with participants and demonstrated areas where we can improve the more extended programme.

I won’t lie. If you’d told me this is where a global pandemic would have delivered me, I would never have believed you. I have no teaching qualifications and shied away from academia my entire life. I know how to start businesses and keep them going, which I’ve managed to do for nearly thirty-five years, and it’s this enthusiasm for helping others to do the same that makes this work so rewarding. The testimonials will receive, completely unprompted, show me that we’re on the right track!

Startup School for Seniors Testimonials

Our students are diverse, from those with PhDs to others with less than three ‘O’ levels — Suzanne Noble

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