Maybe you want to start your own business in midlife so you can escape the corporate grind, gain more control of your time, or pursue a long-postponed passion.
The goal isn’t to get rich: You’d be delighted to match your income from your last job, or even come close. Breaking $1 million in annual revenue seems like a target best left to young entrepreneurs with the freedom and stamina to work 24/7.
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But some solo entrepreneurs in their 50s and 60s are bucking that conventional wisdom.
The $1 million club is exclusive, for sure, but in recent years the door has opened ever so slightly—wide enough for the three small business owners you’ll meet below to walk in.
Of the country’s nearly 25 million “nonemployer” firms — primarily businesses staffed by just the owner — only 36,161 generated between $1 million and $2.5 million in revenue in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But that’s a 35% jump from 2011.
And plenty of other one-person shops are knocking on the door: Nearly a quarter million brought in $500,000 to $999,999 in 2016.
While these high-revenue firms are outliers, the lessons you can take from their success can help you launch your own $1 million idea.
Fill a real need
“To me, the first question is ‘Does it solve a problem?’,” says Kelly Lester, a New York City entrepreneur in her 50s who in 2009 founded EasyLunchBoxes, an online store that sells bento-style, multi-compartment food containers, and built it to a business that has broken more than $1 million in annual revenue.
In her case, Lester had found that the plastic containers on the market were too big to fit into the standard insulated lunch bags her three daughters used. The one she designed fit in neatly.
“If you come up with something that solves a problem that there’s not already an answer for, you’re golden,” she says.
Lean into what you know
What often distinguishes high-earning micro-businesses is that the owners specialize in a narrow and well-paying niche they know well. Take Steve Ferreira, the 58-year-old founder of Ocean Audit and a married father of three from the Hartford, Conn. area.
Ferreira had worked for years as an auditor in the shipping industry before striking out on his own in 2004. He knew that when department stores order clothes from overseas factories, they often overpay for ocean shipping because of mistakes on the bills.
There was money to be made in helping big retailers identify these errors and recoup the money. In what’s proven to be a lucrative business model, when Ferreira spots a mistake (the bills are public) he approaches the company and offers to collect the over-billed amount for 50% of the total.
With errors sometimes reaching six figures, he has been able to build his business to $1.7 million in annual revenue, with no employees.
Ferreira believes that one of his most powerful advantages comes from having deep knowledge of his field: ocean transport. “I’m a big Outliersfan,” says Ferreira, referring to Malcolm Gladwell’s book. “You do 10,000 hours of something, it makes you something of an expert. I have 40,000 hours of expertise in my field.”
That kind of deep knowledge is an advantage many people have once they reach their 50s.
Keep a sharp eye on overhead
What many lucrative solo business share is a smart approach to operations. The owners find creative ways to extend what one or two people can do without high overhead that would erode their profits.
For instance they’ll hire contractors for projects like web design and outsource ongoing tasks like shipping so they can focus on high-value work like winning new business. Ferreira, for instance, has hired freelance copywriters to craft email campaigns.
Many entrepreneurs automate routine procedures like scheduling appointments, using the many easy-to-use and low-cost and free apps available. Ferreira gained an edge by hiring a web developer to help him automate his searches for errors in documents that list the cargo on a ship.
When Lester launched EasyLunchBoxes, she was looking for a way to help support her family—both she and her husband are professional actors. Without a huge budget for marketing, she made the most of social media.
Noticing that food bloggers were taking pictures of the meals they packed into her lunch boxes and sharing them on social media, she shined a spotlight on these bloggers by sharing their posts. That, in turn, helped raise awareness of her brand.
Realizing that social media does not stay static, Lester paid close attention to trends, such as the rise of Instagram, and now has a strong presence there.
Lately, she’s turned her attention to Vine, a video sharing site that’s becoming more important. “It depends on where your audience is hanging out,” she says.
No matter what your business, the key to success is making sales—and the way to start doing that is to meet customers where they are.
Stretch your startup cash
By your 50s, you may find yourself with decades of savings to tap for your launch—or on tight budget, thanks to unexpected life events.
Johan Hattingh of Gig Harbor, Wash. shows that deploying even a small amount of startup cash very strategically can help you accelerate growth, no matter how little you have at the start.
When sudden health problems forced him to leave his career in finance while he was still in his 50s, Hattingh, now 69 and a married father of three grown children, had to find a new way to make a living.
Given his health, Hattingh decided on a home-based business that did not require a lot of phone work. After doing research online, he landed on the idea of an e-commerce store on Amazon in an area that interested him: garden and home ornaments.
Hattingh launched his business, Ain’t It Nice, in July 2011. His upfront investment: $700 to buy inventory from a wholesaler he’d found online. He outsourced the storage and shipping of his wares to Fulfillment by Amazon, which gets a cut in merchants’ sales.
Running his store on Amazon meant wide visibility, and he found he loved thinking about ways to make the most of it, such as introducing new items. “You wake up in the morning and suddenly, there’s a new idea in your head,” he says. “Or you wake up at night, and there’s something percolating in your mind. You’re excited about it and you run with it.”
As sales started coming in, Hattingh kept records of his best-performing products and weeded out the underachievers. As money came in, he reinvested it in new inventory. “My wife’s eyes popped when I would order over $5,000 worth of products,” he says.
Don’t be afraid to start small
When he launched Ocean Audit, Ferreira realized he had a lot to learn about how best to run his business. So he started modestly. His won his first client by volunteering to look over a small firm’s bills—and quickly spotted an $800 mistake.
“Today, $800 would be a disappointment,” he says. But at the time, making that first $400—his half of the money recouped— gave him a talking point to mention in passing to other clients.
“One of the first things you get asked is if you have done this before,” he says. “You need to be able to say, ‘I did this for so and so.’”
Manage your cash flow
As Johan Hattingh’s business garnered positive reviews on Amazon, sales grew. But higher revenues bring new challenges: One of the biggest issues is always cash flow and staying ahead of it,” he says. “That’s the whole thing with growing a business.”
What helped him was the strong credit he’d build over the years—an advantage many people have in mid-life—so he was able to use his American Express card and supplier credit when needed.
By 2012, Hattingh brought in $540,000 in revenue for the year. Since then, Hattingh’s adult son Eugene, who has a military background, has come on board as a business partner.
In 2018, Ain’t It Nice closed the year with just under $2 million in revenue. Hattingh finds that running the business is energizing. “It’s more than just a job,” he says. “It’s a way of life. It’s great.”
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