Women of an uncertain age

Posted by The Guardian on 18/02/2014

“Some people like to work; others can’t wait to stop. I belong to the first category. And I wasn’t about to let a small thing like my age stop me when I spotted a great business opportunity not long after my 65th birthday,” she said.

“After leaving school at 18, I had a job and helped to support my then boyfriend – now my husband of 46 years – through university by working as assistant to the PR for Liberty’s of Regent Street and then with one of the first standalone PR agencies, Leslie Frewin. I then worked in the PR department of Masius & Wynne Williams, a large advertising agency, until my children began to arrive. All this was in the 1960s, when women stayed at home to look after their children and it was more unusual to leave them while you worked.

“My husband, an optometrist with several practices by now, was very involved in the administration and running of his business, so I was able to help him after work and at the weekends and learned how a business should be run properly – minimum expenses and maximum profitability, with good customer relations and after-sales service.

“But when the first of our three daughters went to university, I realised that very soon we would be ‘empty-nesters’ and encouraged my husband to sell his business and work from our home in his professional capacity. I became the receptionist and dispenser.

“As his retirement age loomed, I once again wanted a project and, more by luck than judgment, found a plot of land and we built our retirement bungalow. This took us three years to accomplish. After leaving ordering the curtains until the very end, I realised that there was a real gap in the market for temporary, inexpensive blinds, and asked a designer called Janice Dalton if she wanted to go into business with me to fill the gap. My husband, who had never wanted me to work before, was very supportive but my family was sceptical – after all, I was just their mother and at 65 probably not in the 21st century at all. What did I know?

“It took us more than 18 months to set up our business and after an introduction to Dominic Lawrence, who was sourcing the temporary blinds from the far east, we asked him to join us as an equal partner.

“We built a website and even did our own video, with Dom shooting, Janice demonstrating and lots of laughter. We launched the website in November 2008, and to our surprise, started little by little to get orders from around the UK and even from the Irish Republic and Spain.

“One of the things I had learned from working with my husband was that if you keep your costs down you don’t have to borrow from the bank and, in fact, our set up costs were funded three ways from our individual savings or earnings. We spent no more than £3,500 each and the stock was ordered with a 60-day payment deferment.

“All this time the ‘credit crunch’ was becoming more and more real and suddenly banks, which had formerly been the rock of our society, were failing. We could not have launched a business at a worse time.

“However, our blackout blinds, which are cheap, instant and temporary, are just the job for a recessionary period. My PR seemed to be working well and we had some really nice mentions in both newspapers and magazines.

“One Manchester paper called us ‘idea of the week’ and the Dragons’ Den production team in Manchester, who must have seen the story, contacted us to suggest we fill in an application form. At first we thought it a crazy idea, but after much discussion decided to send the form in.

“We were asked to go to pitch and have a screen test at the BBC studios in London and eventually after quite a few weeks, were asked to go to ­Pinewood to appear in the Den. Dom, to his credit, insisted that we rehearsed, rehearsed and researched so that we would be ready to field any questions.

“On the day, I didn’t feel too nervous. At my age, all I was worried about was making a fool of myself and giving my family ammunition to laugh at me forever more. We pitched for over an hour and were really happy when James Caan and Duncan Bannatyne decided to give us investment.

“They have guided us on a weekly basis and have helped us, by involvement with their other investments, with our distribution and the admin.

“By association with them, Blindsinabox is now a ‘real’ company and my eight grandchildren think I am a really ‘cool’ grandmother, especially when teachers in their schools tell them that they have bought the blind, and is it their grandmother they have seen on the TV?

“It has changed my life and I would recommend anyone who thinks they are too old to change or to start a new career to go for it. You will never regret it and will learn lots of new things, like using your BlackBerry to text your family: “C U 2NITE. SPK L8TR”.