cinde dolphin

Cinde Dolphin, at age 55, started a public relations firm that helps winemakers 

Cinde Dolphin, after 24 years as a marketing manager for Coors, knew what was coming — Miller and Coors had just merged their United States beer operations, and hundreds of jobs were sure to be eliminated.

Worried that these youth-oriented companies might lay off an old-timer like her, Ms. Dolphin decided to take a buyout and relax. She sunned on the beaches of New Zealand, went whitewater rafting on the Yampa River in Colorado and saw friends and Broadway shows in New York.


But after a few months, she realized that she missed working. So at age 55, she began applying for marketing jobs, confident she would be quickly hired because of her Coors pedigree. “About four months into my job search, I realized I wasn’t getting many callbacks,” she said.

A Sacramento resident who has survived three bouts with cancer, Ms. Dolphin is not one to give up easily. She decided on an alternate tack — she would start her own business and thus join the nation’s fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs, those age 55 and above.

Mining her decades of experience, she created a marketing and public relations firm that helps California winemakers get their message out through Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

“I’m having a ball,” she said. “I can set up my own hours and work schedule, and do other things I enjoy.”

More than five million Americans age 55 or older run their own businesses or are otherwise self-employed, according to the Small Business Administration. And the number of self-employed people ages 55 to 64 is soaring, the agency says, climbing 52 percent from 2000 to 2007.

Like Ms. Dolphin, some use money from a buyout to finance a new company. Some of these entrepreneurs were already retired, but after seeing their 401(k) retirement plans plunge in value, created a business in a quest for extra income. Some had lost their jobs and, after months of searching for work, started a business to make ends meet, perhaps catering, cabinet making or doing photography.

But experts on starting a business strike a cautionary note. “The first piece of advice is don’t buy the mythology — all you need is a new idea, that you wander out there, you run your own B.& B., you start your nonprofit and all the birds are singing,” said Marc Freedman, founder of Civic Ventures, a group based in San Francisco. “That’s what you’d think if you pick up some of these money magazines. This is a pretty daunting decision, and it’s also a risky one.

“People should start with some realism about what it takes to do this. It’s important to realize that this is a trajectory that can last 10, 15, 20 years. That means take some time to prepare, whether it means going back to school or doing an apprenticeship. There’s no need to succeed at the very first attempt at this. There’s room for readjustment and regrouping.”

Ms. Dolphin agreed that starting a business was definitely not a cinch. Complicated contracts and legal matters needed to be worked through, and she needed to get up to speed on Twitter. (At one point, she hired a 20-something Twitter tutor at $25 an hour.) But now she is well on her way to success, having lined up Story Winery and two other wineries as clients.

“A business adviser told me, ‘Take a leap of faith, and you’ll see you’re more knowledgeable than you think,’ ” she said. “I think other people can do it, too.”

Deborah Russell, director of work force issues at AARP, said one factor driving older Americans to go into business is that because of the downturn, unemployed people age 55 and older have been out of work for 36 weeks on average.

“A lot of these people have a lifetime of knowledge, skills and networking they’ve amassed, and it’s very easy to use all of that to start a business,” she said. “At the same time, we caution people not to invest their retirement savings into risky start-ups because if you lose your retirement money, you can end up worse than where you started.”

A study by Babson College and Baruch College found that Americans age 55 and above started 18.9 percent of all businesses created in 2008, compared with 10 percent in 2001. The 55-and-overs are playing a larger role in entrepreneurship partly because the number of Americans in that age category is rising rapidly. (The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College found only a small increase in the percentage of those older than 55 who are self-employed since 2001, although it found a spurt upward since mid-2008.)

One entrepreneur is Bob Mello, 57. He was teaching English at a preparatory school in Bay St. Louis, Miss., when Hurricane Katrina destroyed the school — and his job along with it. Helped by government funds, the mansion where Sydney Pollack filmed “This Property Is Condemned,” released in 1966 (with Natalie Woods and Robert Redford), is being restored, to be used as a theater. Part will be used for plays, and Mr. Mello, pursuing his love of film, will turn part into a 100-seat repertoire movie theater.

“It seemed like a thing I’d like to do,” said Mr. Mello, who is doing this for money as well as love.

“I wish it was just a hobby,” he said. “Since Katrina, I’ve been substitute teaching and doing odd jobs, just trying to pay the bills.”

He is hoping a friend will donate $20,000 worth of projection equipment. “This is pretty small scale, but it’s daunting,” he added.

The federal government has numerous programs to help older entrepreneurs. Traditionally, laid-off workers cannot obtain unemployment benefits unless they are looking for a job, but in 10 states, they can continue receiving jobless benefits if they show they are setting up a business instead.

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