Starting a late-life business rewarding, challenging

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By Brian Goslow

WORCESTER —

David Papazian woke up one day and decided he was going to open an art gallery to coincide with his 50th birthday. “In six months, it was open,” he said. “Done.”

The path to his dream was made easier by his having already owned a local hardware store. In that instance, however, he had taken over a 30-year-old business. “When I opened the doors there, the people who walked in were already sold on what they wanted to buy,” Papazian said.

Opening an art gallery was a whole different animal. Papazian had slowly learned about the art business while living in Arizona after graduating from college, but didn’t passionately begin purchasing art until he met his future wife, Gina, 15 years ago.

Though the Papazians opened their gallery in Worcester’s Canal District to realize a dream, businesses that were started last year — for all age groups, but especially for women and entrepreneurs over 45 — saw a doubling of the percent that were started out of necessity rather than opportunity, according to Babson’s 2010 Global Entrepreneurial Monitor report.

David, now 54, and Gina Papazian, now 41 chose their roster of internationally recognized artists from connections made while attending ArtExpo New York. “We were already looking at artwork and artists we liked prior to opening a gallery,” David Papazian said.

As part of an agreement for receiving startup funding from a local bank, Papazian underwent U.S. Small Business Administration program training through Clark University’s Small Business Development Center.

“I went in full force and did a lot of promotion and advertising, and went to business-to-business meetings (to generate clients),” Papazian said. “When you turn 50, you don’t have a lot of time for a learning curve and to make income. I might have gone more slowly if I was 30.”

At 50, individual start-up entrepreneurs in Massachusetts are slightly older than the national average of 47, are more optimistic and tend to have a lower fear of business failure, according to the Babson report. The study, released by Babson College in Wellesley, noted most individuals who start new businesses are already working full time.

When the study was being compiled in 2008, the number of start-ups in the state was at the highest level it had been in recent years. The past two years, however, have seen that number drop due to economic uncertainty. “The same things that spurred growth in entrepreneurship in 2008, when turned upside down, caused the decline in entrepreneurship in 2009,” said I. Elaine Allen, research director for the Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship at Babson College.

“Prior to the financial and housing crises, money was available to start and grow businesses either through banks, personal housing refinancing or through angel investors (informal investors) and venture capital,” Allen said. “In 2009 this money disappeared and entrepreneurs were reluctant or unable to finance their ventures alone.”

Major challenges for starting a new business include establishing the necessary infrastructure, licensing, permits and utility costs.

Each new business owner takes the step of being his or her own boss differently. Some, like Papazian, switch fields mid-career, having already gotten a taste of being a business owner. Others take knowledge garnered in their professional field and use it to create their own companies. Some, like Graham West, just know they want to be their own boss and seek out their best opportunity.

West, 62 of Marshfield, had spent over 30 years in the restaurant business when he was laid off in 2004. While he couldn’t find a full-time position to replace the one he lost, he did find work as a consultant, and served as interim president for a Connecticut food company. But he always wanted to own his own company.

To accomplish his goal, he hired an intermediary who represents buyers. ”I did a fairly extensive direct mailing campaign (to business owners) of 600 letters,” West said. “We got 60 responses. I made an offer on one business, got the financing to purchase it and then they decided not to sell.”

Then he found Morgan Awning, a Woburn-based company that manufactures custom-made canopies, awnings and other building covers. “I did look for food-process or manufacturing opportunities, but instead found something interesting I could use my marketing skills on,” West said.

He funded the purchase through savings and from his 401K. Today, Morgan Awning employs approximately 12 people. “I do all the buying, scheduling, bill paying and sometimes I go out and do installations with the guys,” West said. “I was always a hands-on person.”

The first two years, business grew 48 percent. “Then the economy tanked and we’ve been scrambling,” said West, who averages 60 to 70 hours a week on the job, to which he travels 80 miles roundtrip each day. “Normally, I get up at 4:30 every weekday and am here from 6 to 6 and work a half-day on Saturday,” he said.

His advice to those who’d like to follow in his footsteps: “Do your due diligence and understand what you’re buying, be it a customer list or inventory stock and recognize what your employees are capable of and be ready to put your time into it,” West said.

Pam Pacelli Cooper and her husband, Rob Cooper, started Verissima Productions after she had spent 28 years as a family therapist and oral historian and he had worked for PBS and WBZ-TV’s public affairs department filming, editing, writing and producing documentaries for 25 years. At the time, they were 51 and 53 respectively.

“My husband was doing freelance corporate videos; I was doing full-time work as a professional family therapist,” Pacelli Cooper said. “A friend of ours was turning 75 and I said to my husband, ‘Let’s go up to Montreal and make a historical video of his life for his birthday.’ ”

The experience lit a fuse in Pacelli Cooper. “What started out happening was I became very interested in finished products in my life,” she said. “You don’t have that in my profession.”

The pair formally opened their company in 2004, purchasing nearly $30,000 of production equipment and renting office space. “He does the editing and shooting and I do the research, the interviewing and the music research,” Pacelli Cooper said.

The company’s work has included Samuel Bak: The Art of Speaking the Unspeakable, a 37-minute documentary that aired on PBS; a half-hour presentation on The Warren Group and its 135 years in the publishing field, utilizing video interviews and archival material to tell the story; and Down the Cape, which documented three generations of a family that was moving out of a Cape Cod cottage the family had called its summer home for 75 years.

“That’s a specialty of ours,” Pacelli Cooper said of the Cape documentary. “Many people are having to downsize and leave their family homes of three, four or five generations. You can’t take it with you. If the older person has a video of the place, then the grandchildren and great-grandchildren won’t lose out on the tremendous history they have.

“We do a lot of research,” she said. “When I interview people in their late 70s, 80s and 90s, they give simple surface answers. We pride ourselves in getting the deeper story. It’s important to me to preserve these kinds of things. I’m going to do more house and home histories.”

Pacelli Cooper envisions that she and her husband will continue running the company for as long as they’re physically able.

Michael Grossman, 67, started My Green Mind, an online retailer of “any kind of product that’s makes for a green planet,” out of his Narragansett, R.I. home in January, 2008. It’s his third business. His first, Cruises of Distinction, was a retailer of cruises marketed through direct mail and catalog solicitation that he formed in the early 1980s. When he sold the assets of the company in 1994, he thought he’d retire.

Retirement didn’t fit him though, and he created Office Organix in 1996, a company that sold adaptive equipment for computers; products were aimed at creating a healthy computer office and to provide adaptive computer peripherals and furniture for people with special needs. He eventually sold to his employees in January, 2008, and started My Green Mind, where he marketed the company using the tools that had worked successfully for him prior to the explosion of the Internet as a business tool.

“It took a year to realize the old marketing rules had changed and adapting to the new ones has been a struggle — especially without a younger staff who might be familiar with the newer ways to market,” Grossman said. To get up to speed, he took a series of web-related courses at the Rhode Island School of Design and took online marketing and software classes from web resources such as HubSpot.com.

“What’s really happened in marketing is the workload has doubled,” Grossman said. “To advertise, you need the publication and digital version and an e-blast. The load for marketing has really doubled (from what it was when he started out nearly 30 years ago).”

Currently, My Green Mind consists of Grossman, his wife and part-time staff he calls in when the workload warrants it. “I run it out of an office over my garage,” he said. “We have daily UPS shipments; we ship biodegradable waste bags and rechargeable batteries that hold a charge up to a year, out of here. If it’s a bigger order, for a town, for instance, we arrange a drop shipment from the supplier.”

Grossman acknowledges that selling environmentally friendly products that will attract customers to his website won’t be easy. “It’s the first time I’ve tried to retail low-cost products and make a profit,” he said. “It’s challenging, but we’ll get there.”

SIDE BAR:

SCORE guides new entrepreneurs

By Brian Goslow

Seymour Salett, chairperson of the Boston chapter of SCORE, a non-profit volunteer organization that assists entrepreneurs through one-on-one advising sessions, said his office this year has counseled over 4,000 people who want to start a business or are already in business.

“We’re seeing a very large number of people who are disenchanted with the large corporate structure — ‘nobody appreciates me’ — and they’re willing to make less money but want to run their own business,” Salett said.

The big difficulty — especially these days  — is securing the financing to get started. Having a good credit rating is a necessity, as is a viable business plan. Salett’s office helps budding entrepreneurs formulate a presentation to be given to banks, credit unions, family and friends.

“There are 150 banks in the Commonwealth, most will not fund startups, maybe five, at most, will,” Salett said. “You have to go to family and friends and articulate your project and have an exit strategy for their investment.

“When you borrow from family and friends, it has to be arms-length. You have the same obligation to them as you would to a bank. You need a date you’re going to pay them back, be it in five or 10 years, the amount of interest you’ll pay them and a kicker at the end.”

Another important part of starting a business is understanding who your customer is. “You can have the best product in the world but if nobody needs it, what good is it?” Salett said. “The product needs to have a benefit that impacts their customers.”

Most budding entrepreneurs find it difficult to determine the cost of doing business. “You have to consider rent, utilities, advertising and staff, which are your expenses,” Salett said. When seeking funding, people need to be able to explain their business plan and understand that even with a strong plan, the cost of starting a business means it takes at least six months to achieve sales that’ll reach the break-even point.

Then there’s the most important factor, which many new business owners tend to forget. “They need to include a salary for themselves,” Salett said. “How are you going to sustain yourself? How are you going to live until you break even?”

Salett also shares a bit of cold reality. “The largest number of new businesses don’t make it,” he said. “Those who have a responsible business plan with proper financing have a strong chance of making it. Those who come in with great ideas of all these things they want to do, if they don’t understand the market, only a small percentage of them make it.”

For more information: scoreboston.org.