By Suzanne Noble, Co-founder of Startup School for Seniors
These are headlines with which my co-founder Mark Elliott and I have lived experience and with which, in part, lead to the creation of our social enterprise, Startup School for Seniors. Launched in September 2020 and funded by a grant from London Community Response, this eight week eLearning course was designed to support over 50s who had been made redundant or recently unemployed due to the pandemic’s fallout.
Both Mark and I have transitioned our careers numerous times, not always successfully. In March 2020, I lost my part-time job, which had delivered me a regular income for over a year. The Airbnb room I had been running 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, my income dropped by two-thirds.
And for Mark, he lost his university work in February as Chinese students didn’t return to fill the classes, and the business owners he coached shut down their businesses within days of the lock-down. Hence, his local council’s offer to provide emergency business advice was a lifeline. The business advice sessions were full of people over 50 stunned by the change in their circumstances.
It’s these kinds of lived experiences that inform the work that we do. As older people, both freelance, we know firsthand how challenging it can be to find customers and generate a sustainable income, to market yourself when you may not feel valuable. It can be tough to keep going and pushing when everyone thinks that the market we’re serving doesn’t need any help, which couldn’t be further from the truth and now acknowledged by the media and the local authorities who support us.
Both of us have designed, facilitated, and participated in many startup programmes. These often fail participants, especially those in the intersections of age, gender, colour, ability, and wealth/class. Startup School for Seniors is an accelerator/incubator programme model with people at its heart rather than High Growth Potential businesses. But that doesn’t mean that some of our participants do not lack ambition.
Confidence building comes in peer to peer support, created via an administered and moderated online support group and a weekly exploration and collaboration zoom call. Over the past six months, we made over 25 hours of video content, interviewing numerous business owners, from those in the nascent stages of their business to others, generating seven figures in turnover, all aged over 50.
It has not been without its challenges. Digital delivery of this type of programme is new to many of our older beneficiaries. There was the initial hurdle of onboarding them onto the platform we had developed ourselves. Many had not used Zoom before. We found ourselves in those early weeks looking at many tops of the head as our participants familiarised themselves with the software and their willingness to be seen by others.
However, despite many older people often categorised as technically illiterate, this has not been our experience. The course has a can-do attitude in mind; we applied this to using the software too. We quickly discovered that producing a how-to video using Loom clarified any questions that arose in the first couple of weeks over which button to click and where. By week three, we found ourselves facing a group of participants on Zoom, all in full-frame, smiling and happily going off into their breakout rooms to connect and deliver their ‘elevator pitch.’ They enjoyed leaving comments on the videos they had watched, fully engaged in the material.
Since the first cohort in September, we have now delivered two more cohorts funded by Hammersmith & Fulham Local Authority and Camden Giving. We’ve had more than 90 enrollees, watched participants grow in confidence, made money, new friends, and emerged new business owners.
Alongside the group’s startup journey, we’ve been on our own, learning all the time what’s working and what isn’t, listening to our beneficiaries tell us what they want and hearing from local authorities how we can help support their older residents. We’re figuring out how to scale beyond the two of us so we can reach more people.
Our next big step is a paid-for version of the programme we’re launching in May as we have awaiting funding decisions that would determine whether we can continue to offer it for free. It’s a risky strategy, but then, we wouldn’t be entrepreneurs unless we gave it a shot, now would we?