Three women tell w&h how returning to work after redundancy, retirement and time out for children took them in a new direction
Joanna Bulmer, 46, lives in Winslow, Buckinghamshire with her husband Steve and their two children Oliver, five, and Emily, three.
Old job: Group account director for a direct marketing company
New job: Runs a cookery school with her husband
Start-up costs: £1 million (it came from lots of sources!), aiming for a profit in second year
“I thought my background in marketing would help me run my own business, but it’s being a mother that has made me a better boss. I took maternity leave after my first child was born, and although I didn’t go back to work, I dreamed of running my own business.
At the same time, Steve, who’d been a chef at Raymond Blanc’s cookery school Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons for ten years, was questioning where his career would take him next. We started fantasising about having our own cookery school, with Steve taking the lessons and me running the business side. But our daydreams only began to take shape when we spotted Brook Hall for sale, a beautiful, six-bedroom, 18th-century townhouse.
My working background helped me draw up a business plan, and we applied for planning permission to change the house from a residential home to a commercial property. When I approached the local council, they warned me I would face opposition because the hall is in a residential area and the inflow of traffic and delivery vans might cause disruption. So I did my research and found a nearby car park where our delivery trucks could pull up without blocking the street.
We knew we wouldn’t be able to fund the project by ourselves, so we approached some local investors who were impressed by our business plan and offered to lend us £250,000 for a 49 per cent share of the business. We put up £51,000 of our savings, got a small business loan from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, and took out a mortgage on the hall. We decided to rent out our old house in nearby Weedon as a fall-back plan and then we moved in.
I was aware from the start that we had a massive mortgage so I wanted to start earning money as soon as possible. While the necessary renovations were being done, I got to work marketing the school. I set up our website so we could start selling the courses immediately, got some publicity in local newspapers and signed up with a PR firm to broaden our reach. We opened in May this year with eight weeks of course bookings already in the bag. Steve and his assistant chef had planned their menus and course material, and we recruited a reservations manager and a housekeeper who kept things running smoothly.
We now also hire out the dining room for events. I’ve built up a team of temporary waiting staff who I roster in for any events and we’ve recently taken on a top pastry chef, who will run bread and chocolate-making courses. While Steve is busy in the kitchen I handle the business side – it’s a lot like running a home. It’s hard work, but we’re hoping to break even next year, and we’re really excited about our plans for the future.”
Visit www.brookhall.net or call 01296-712111.
My best move: Visiting the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform website and discovering we were eligible for a small business loan. Go to www.berr.gov.uk for more details.
My worst mistake: Not forecasting accurately. I assumed people would book their courses three months in advance but it turned out to be more like four to six weeks before, so I had to adjust our budget.
Top tip: Plan carefully. Visit rivals and understand your target customer.
Annie Lawler, 50, lives in St John’s Wood, London with her partner Ralph, 53, a business consultant.
Old job: Business development director at an advertising agency
New job: Runs a stress-management company
Start-up costs: £10,000
This year’s projected earnings: £50,000, but Annie expects to earn more with the launch of her CD range and other projects
“Towards the end of my 30 years working in advertising I was suffering from severe stress and was desperate for something to focus on outside of work. I stumbled upon stress management and decided to start an 18-month correspondence course. Three months after I qualified, I was made redundant, which gave me the kick to start up my own business.
Before I started, I spoke to people I knew in similar roles and tried out my ideas on friends and family. Then I approached clinics that offer alternative therapies to find consulting rooms that I could lease on an ad hoc basis. I made up some leaflets and developed a website with a free stress test, which attracted lots of interest.
So many people have forgotten how to relax or are so stressed they don’t realise there is a different way to be. I spend time talking to a client and then suggest ways they might improve their lives. For example, I might offer them one of the techniques I’ve trained in or recommend they go for acupuncture or to see a Feng Shui expert, for example.
Although people say they need help managing their stress, they’ll often say they’re too busy to make time for an appointment. So I recently developed a range of relaxation CDs that people can work with at home. I’ve made eight CDs now and have just signed a deal for them to be produced and sold globally for me.
I earn much less than I did before, but being my own boss gives me a real sense of freedom. I work hard, but I choose how, when, where, and how much – it’s great.”
Worst mistake: Not checking equipment. A presentation almost ground to a halt when my computer malfunctioned – my stress management techniques were useful then.
Best move: Recognising that skills I’d learnt in my old job would be useful in my new career and capitalising on them.
Top tip: If you are passionate about what you do, working won’t feel like a job.
Liz Friedrich, 63, lives in Stoke Newington, London. She’s divorced and has four grown-up children.
Liz is typical of a new trend for “returnment” – sixty-plus women who are discovering new careers.
Old job: Manager of a semi-independent section of a high street bank, providing careers and mediation advice and services
New job: Garden designer
Start-up costs: £1,000 to 2,000
First year’s turn over: £10,000 to £12,000
“Colour is important but shapes of plants are also key to the look of any space. I have a client who described the garden she would love as, ‘The Queen Mother’s hat’, so I’m aiming for fluffy, pretty, pink and mauve. I’ve also designed a black-and-white garden for a fashion magazine editor. The pots and patio were black and white so I used lots of fuchsia and black grass in winter and pink geraniums in the summer.
After the contract for the job I was doing ended I suddenly found myself retired at 59. A quick look at my bank balance convinced me I couldn’t stop working completely – and anyway I just didn’t feel old enough. Gardening had always been a passion and I’d already taken a horticultural and garden design course. I suppose a small part of me had always wondered if I could make money by doing what I love.
Starting up wasn’t initially expensive because I had all the necessary gardening kit. I started by doing gardens for friends of friends. At first I charged far too little. I wasn’t used to quoting and found it hard to ask for money. But I gradually built up a portfolio and my confidence and now much of my business comes from personal recommendations.
Making a decent living wasn’t as important as it would have been if I still had four children to feed, but after the first few months I knew I should take my business to the next level. So in February 2007 I enrolled on a ten-week course at the London Metropolitan University, called ‘Forward at Fifty’, for women over fifty wanting to start their own businesses. It really instilled the importance of understanding cash flow, knowing your market and having a solid business plan.
Many of my clients claim they want a gorgeous garden that doesn’t require them to do any work – I spend a lot of time explaining that that’s impossible. But I love the satisfaction I get from helping to turn an often ghastly space into something beautiful.”
Call (020) 8800 8768.
Top tip: Know your clients and what they like – they’ll appreciate it.
Worst mistake: Underestimating how much a job was going to cost and under-quoting for it. It can be hard to put a value on yourself.
Best move: Keeping in touch with colleagues in the industry. If you work on your own it can be isolating, so it’s a good idea to have someone to bounce ideas off and show you new ways of doing things.