Late-life entrepreneurs

Time to start on your own?

04 April 2018

5 minute read

“I just didn’t want to work for someone else any more,” says Jane Kellock, one of a new breed of late-stage entrepreneurs.

Late-life entrepreneurs are men and women in their 50s and 60s who’ve decided to leave a career in corporate life and set up businesses on their own. And, Kellock says she’s never looked back – “It’s really been the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Kellock spent most of her career in fashion, working for big companies such as Topshop as a merchandiser and designer, and, later, in senior roles in trend-forecasting consultancies such as the multinational agency WGSN. But in 2012 she decided to leave all that behind and go it alone.

“I knew the corporate world already,” she says, “and I knew how to service it. But I wanted to set up something nimbler than the companies I had worked for, more agile and able to change.”

The result was Unique Style Platform, a small forecasting agency which she started in east London and which is now taking on her former employers at their own game.

“At the beginning we were just me and an intern who worked two days a week,” she says, “but now we are five plus an army of freelancers. The real pro is having autonomy to make decisions. If a client asks for something I can say yes straightaway.”

Kellock is not alone. According to Rita McGrath, professor of management at the Columbia Business School in New York, an increasing number of people are moving into late-stage self-employment, both in the UK and the US.

“This a good moment to be going into entrepreneurial work,” she says, “especially for people towards the end of their career.” She identifies three reasons for this.

“First, work has become what we like to call ‘tours of duty’ – people work for one company, then another and then maybe even the first one again. The career in the same place for life is getting more and more rare.”

Second, she says, there’s been a big change in how much you need in the bank to get going. “You can start a business now with access to assets rather than owning assets” she says, “things like using Amazon cloud for your IT, for example, instead of having to buy computers. This makes starting a start-up so much easier.”

And, lastly, there’s the personal benefit. “This is a good time in your life to do this,” says McGrath. “The kids are grown up, the mortgage is paid, the job is trundling on but you know it’s not your life goal. And, after 20, 30 years in the corporate world, you have this fabulous network, much better than any young entrepreneur has.”

Needless to say, setting up a company has its challenges, especially when compared to the subtle comforts of the corporate world.

“You will almost certainly have taken for granted a lot of the corporate infrastructure in your life,” says McGrath, “things like the mail coming to your desk, IT support, being able to go and get a new pencil. It’s a big shock when you have to do all of this yourself. And you may find yourself getting lonely. There’s a natural community in a company. When you go it alone, who do you turn to for advice?”

Kellock agrees. “You have to do everything for yourself, from the IT to changing the lightbulbs to cleaning the office,” she says. “You can’t be precious. And you do end up doing things you are not very good at. I hate spreadsheets, for example.”

But the biggest risk, of course, is financial. Access to assets or not, you are still going to need some start-up funding. (Kellock started with a family gift of £25,000.) And there’s a chance it won’t work out.

“So don’t invest money that you can’t afford to lose,” says McGrath. Instead, she says, get out of the corporate mindset you’re used to.

“You have to impose an entrepreneurial discipline on yourself,” she says. “Don’t incur lots of fixed costs. People in corporate life often don’t get this. They set up in business and have an office, a secretary. You can’t do that. It has to be revenue flowing in before expenses flow out.”

And she recommends adopting the entrepreneurial mantra:
“Don’t buy what you can lease.
Don’t lease what you can borrow.
Don’t borrow what you can beg.
Don’t beg what you can salvage.”

Kellock agrees. (She still goes in every Sunday to do the cleaning herself.) And she adds that you also have to understand how long you want to be in business for.

“This is crucial, so take advice,” she says, “go to a financial adviser. You need to work out whether you are looking for a quick return or slow growth. It will make a big difference to how you run the business.”

And, while you’re there, check with your adviser about the tax implications of setting up on your own.

Both Kellock and McGrath are excited by the possibilities of later-life entrepreneurship, but they’ve both noticed that it’s something that seems to appeal to women more than men.

“There are a lot more women doing this than men,” says McGrath. “I think it may be because they get to the stage in corporate life when, for them, work is a lot more about self-actualisation than about money. And, obviously, a lot of things that have emerged recently about corporate life have shown us that it’s a world where a lot of women just say, ‘I don’t need this.’”

Besides, she adds, women have the advantage here because of their life experience.
“As a 50-year-old woman, you have been multitasking for 30 years,” she says, “had children, solved the meaning of life. You already have the skills to open a business.” She laughs.

“So, go for it.”


From 1996 to 2007, more people in the US aged between 55 and 64 started new businesses than people aged between 20 and 34.
Source: Kauffman Foundation

Business services and agricultural activities: sectors middle-aged entrepreneurs tend to set up business in.

Consumer services and retail: sectors preferred by older entrepreneurs.
Source: Kauffman Foundation

1 in 10
Likelihood of someone over 50 in the UK who has been made redundant finding work again.
Source: Office for National Statistics/PRIME

10 million
The number of self-employed people in the UK aged between 50 and 64.
Source: CEBR

Percentage of employed persons in US over age 65 who are self-employed.
Source: Kauffman Foundation

Percentage of new businesses in the UK last year that have only one employee.
Source: Business in the Community

Number of people over 50 forced out the workforce in the UK before State Pension age who want to keep on working.
Source: Business in the Community

What would you like to do next?

Read more articles

Learn more about the latest economic issues, gain market insights and discover some of the trends shaping the world today.

Explore wealth planning

Your aspirations, legacy and retirement plans – carefully understood and supported by your personal Wealth Planner.