Elder-preneurs show you are never too old to start your own business

Some retirees discover new purpose in their lives by becoming entrepreneurs, or elder-preneurs

Many retirees look forward to putting their feet up after years of work, but some find new purpose and meaning at this stage of life by becoming elder-preneurs - entrepreneurs who begin businesses in their silver years.

Some like Ms Helen Lim, 70, who is involved in running two social enterprises, one cooperative and a cafe, do so because they are passionate about helping fellow seniors.

Others like Mr Richard Koh, 55, and Ms Audrey Lee, 54, were compelled to do so because of personal challenges.

Mr Koh was retrenched from his regional business manager job in IT last May, but did not feel "ready to retire".

Last November, he co-founded his online company 1°C, which specialises in handcrafted cold-brew coffees and cold teas.

Ms Lee was given the responsibility of caring for her mother in 2011 after the latter was struck by accelerated dementia following hip surgery.

She says: "I remember feeling very lost. Everyone in my family felt bewildered as we did not know what was happening."

Becoming her mother's caregiver was a steep learning curve and it made her want to help fellow caregivers.

In 2013, she and other like-minded seniors founded the Silver Caregivers Co-operative, which has the mission of caring for caregivers.

She says that caregiving can be a thankless 24/7 job, one that leaves the caregiver feeling sapped and trapped.

She and her co-founders wanted to help others like her know that they can embrace this new role rather than resent it. Silver Caregivers offers workshops, seminars and courses to help caregivers with their roles.

No matter the reasons behind their start-ups and social enterprises, these elder-preneurs are living proof that age is no barrier to starting something new.

The Sunday Times finds out more about their projects.


She gets new orders every week through word of mouth

MS TEO LAY HONG, 77 QUILTMAKER


Ms Teo Lay Hong (above) with a patchwork blanket and dolls for a Nativity scene that she knitted. PHOTO: GIN TAY FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

Three years ago, Ms Teo Lay Hong took a patchwork blanket to church on a whim.

She had hand-sewn the blanket and wanted to see if anyone would buy it.

To her surprise and delight, a church friend told her she would pay $500 for it.

That was the start of her journey as an entrepreneur.

After retiring from a book-keeping job when she was in her 50s, she initially spent her free time travelling and playing mahjong.

Three years ago, she decided to return to sewing and knitting as a hobby.

Her skills were mostly self- taught, picked up from books and learnt from friends.

After the sale of her first blanket, she started sewing patchwork blankets, aprons and tote bags as well as knitting dolls for sale.

At $30 each, aprons are her cheapest items. She can make one a day.

The most expensive are patchwork blankets, which are made of thousands of hand-cut pieces of fabric that are stitched together. They cost $800 to $850 each and take four months to complete.


Ms Teo Lay Hong (above) with a patchwork blanket and dolls for a Nativity scene that she knitted. PHOTO: GIN TAY FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

The widow has three step-children who are in their 50s.

Her Indonesian helper Kiyaratus Sangadah, 34, who lives with her in a three-room HDB flat in the east, is her trusty assistant.

To get inspiration, she goes on social media platform Pinterest. Materials and fabrics are bought from People's Park Complex.

Her earnings are divided three ways: One third goes towards covering her costs and getting new materials, one third goes to charity and the final third goes to her helper.

New orders come in every week, although she never advertises. People know about her handiwork through word of mouth, she says.

"I'm very fussy about my workmanship because I believe in doing things well," she says.

"My motto is: By love we serve. Nothing makes me happier than buyers who tell me they are happy with their purchases."


He wants to help seniors organise travel necessities

MR JAMES LAM, 62 CREATOR OF THE ELDER POUCH


Mr James Lam and his travel kit for older travellers. ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

After observing that more senior citizens were going on post-retirement holidays but were disorganised when it came to packing travel necessities, retired businessman James Lam came up with a solution.

Called the "elder pouch" and launched three months ago, the kit contains 12 useful items for older travellers.

These include a distress alarm, a fever strip, a pill box and an emergency call list.

At pharmacies, he found that there were first-aid kits, but no package was geared specifically for older travellers.

After gathering ideas for what the pouch should contain and getting a grant from social enterprise Silver Spring, he flew to China to find a factory to produce the pouch.

His contacts from the time he was doing business, importing and exporting items from China, came in handy.

The green, zippered pouch opens to reveal multiple compartments. The items inside are either sourced from overseas or made by the factory in China.

Some of the first run of 300 pouches have been given to friends for feedback.

Eventually, he hopes to sell the pouch to travel companies, especially those that cater to the elder travel market.

He is looking to price the pouch at $25, which he says is just a few dollars above its cost price.

Meanwhile, he is starting work on another project - elder-safe shoes that will help to minimise falls among the elderly.

"I always believe in making plans a reality," says Mr Lam, who is married with two adult children.

"I don't want to just learn more and upgrade my skills, but also to actually do something meaningful."


He recovered from retrenchment blues to start a coffee and tea business

MR RICHARD KOH, 55 CO-FOUNDER OF 1°C, A START-UP SPECIALISING IN HANDCRAFTED COLD-BREW COFFEES AND COLD TEAS


Mr Richard Koh and his wife Bee Yan with the cold-brew drinks from their start-up 1°C. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

When Mr Richard Koh, 55, and his wife Bee Yan, 61, make deliveries of their cold-brew coffees and teas, some people ask them: "Is your son or daughter coming?"

People assume that coffee entrepreneurs like them tend to be young.

"We say, 'No, no, it's just us'," Mr Koh says. "We don't find it offensive. We think it's funny."

Their nine-month-old business, 1°C, specialises in cold-brew coffees. Cold brew is a method of preparing coffee by steeping the grounds in room temperature or cold water for as long as 24 hours, depending on the recipe.

Sold in glass bottles online, the drinks start at $4 for a cold tea and go up to $7 for a speciality coffee.

About twice a month, the brand participates in pop-up events to increase its exposure.

The founders unveiled their first two products, Black and White Cold Brew coffees, at a pop-up event last November.

In the past few months, they have launched new drinks, including a Masala Cold Brew Coffee; an Almond Milk Cold Brew Coffee, which is vegan and lactose- friendly; and Blue Pea and Basil & Mint cold teas.

The couple run the start-up with one other partner. They have two adult children who are not involved in the venture.

The couple started the business after Mr Koh was abruptly retrenched in May last year from his regional business manager job in IT, which he had held for 10 years.

For months after that, he felt down and demoralised.

But his wife urged him to stop moping and to channel his energies into their common passion - coffee.

They go to cafes together at least once a week to get their java fix and each drinks several cups of coffee a day.

Last July, Mr Koh decided he was ready to move on from the retrenchment episode and the couple started to research the beverage.

They decided to focus on cold- brew coffees because they found that these were gentler on tummies, being far less acidic than hot- brew coffees.

Going to at least 10 roasteries here to source for beans, they tried to mix and match bean types and quantities to create their own unique blend.

After four months of experiments, taste tests and focus group discussions, their brand 1°C was launched in November last year.

The C in their brand stands for Coffee and Cold, and the 1° stands for it being a made-in-Singapore product as Singapore's location is about 1 degree north of the equator.

So far, they have recouped the mid-five-figure sum they invested in the business.

They have more flavours in the pipeline and are looking to stock their products in cafes here.

Mr Koh is pleased with the progress.

"I've always wanted to be an entrepreneur," he says. "I thank God for leading us to the right people and for giving us the creativity and spirit to do this."


She helps seniors with social enterprises

MS HELEN LIM, 70 SERIAL ELDER-PRENEUR


Ms Helen Lim set up Silver Spring to help mature job-seekers find re-employment. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

There is no stopping serial elder- preneur Helen Lim, a sprightly and cheerful 70-year old.

I really want to help seniors. I believe in doing good and in doing well.

MS HELEN LIM

She became an entrepreneur for the first time when she was 62 and has since gone on to co-found cafes and two other social enterprises.

The former human resource director and civil servant set up social enterprise Silver Spring in 2009, just four years after her retirement in 2005.

She had noticed that many people lost their sense of identity and self-esteem after retiring or getting retrenched.

Silver Spring helps to find re-employment for mature job-seekers.

That year, she also set up Chatters Cafe in Parkview Square near Bugis and staffed it with employees all aged 50 and above.

"It was an opportunity for Silver Spring to showcase what it did, for us to walk the talk," she says.

As she conversed with her fellow seniors, she realised many of them did not want to spend their golden years working.

Instead, they wanted to travel. The problem, however, was that they could not keep up with the pace of travel on commercial group tours and felt more tired than refreshed after their trips.

So she banded together with like- minded seniors and founded Silver Horizon Travel Co-operative in 2012 with the help of the Singapore National Co-operative Federation.

Formed in 1980, the federation aims to promote and develop cooperatives as sustainable enterprises.

Silver Horizon Travel works with tour agencies to come up with customised, senior-friendly group tour packages.

To become a member of the cooperative, people pay $50, which entitles them to a share of the cooperative, and an administrative fee of another $50. Membership is open to anyone aged 40 and older.

It has organised 45 trips to date, an average of nine trips a year. Destinations range from Johor Baru to Russia. This year, members have gone to Taiwan and Hokkaido, Japan, and there are two fully subscribed upcoming trips to Okinawa, Japan, and Vietnam later this year.

In 2012, she opened another Chatters Cafe in Ren Ci Community Hospital in Novena.

That opening also marked the end of Chatters Cafe in Parkview Square, which she closed because of rising rentals.

Even with a full plate, Ms Lim continued to be sensitive to the needs of fellow seniors.

To help those who were staying at home and waiting for time to pass, she co-founded Silver Sparkles in 2014, a social enterprise which matches senior citizens with part- time jobs.

Ms Lim, who is married with an adult son, is confident that this is not the final senior-focused project she will be involved in.

The self-confessed champion of "silver talent" says that many of them have ideas and these are birthed over cups of coffee at Chatters Cafe.

She says: "I really want to help seniors. I believe in doing good and in doing well."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 13, 2017, with the headline 'Elder-preneurs on the go'. Print Edition | Subscribe