The End & the Beginning

Not your usual Christmas newsletter. But then, you knew that, didn't you?

I used to write Xmas newsletters and post them out to my old university friends. I’m talking 20+ years ago, pre-internet, when I could edit a year of my life into 1-2 single-spaced, hand-typed, double-sided pages. I came upon a few of those old, photocopied pages a few months back, while moving boxes from a storage area under my stairs in preparation for the cowboy builders. (I didn’t know they were cowboys back then, of course). Reading those old Christmas rundowns was a trip down memory lane, with talk of babies being born, first steps taken, exotic holidays (usually Mexico - ah those were the days), celeb stories from my time as a publicist.

Now it’s almost impossible to share anything that has happened without the feeling that you’ve probably read it already on Facebook, watched the video on Instagram.

If you happen to be one of those people for whom social media are two words in the dictionary that have been joined together but otherwise have no meaning, here’s my Top 10 (almost entirely business-related) Highlights of 2020:

1. January 2020 -  Following a feature in the Evening Standard about Silver Sharers, I decided, with a week’s notice, to hold a meet-up in a groovy co-work space in Paddington for anyone with a room to let or seeking a room. Twenty-five people turned up, including a journalist from the Guardian. My new business was off to a great start and I was looking forward to hosting regular meet-ups across the city.

2. February 2020 - Silver Sharers was accepted onto the Bethnal Green Ventures accelerator programme which came with funding. After 5 years in startup land, I felt I’d hit the jackpot, being accepted into the inner sanction of businesses that had been given the gold seal of approval by a reputable funder.

2. March 2020 - The pandemic hit and I lost all my work, gigs, running events for the Soho House Group, hosting on Airbnb. All gone. My boyfriend, with whom I’d had a very satisfying weekend only relationship up till now, moved in with me. I turned 59.

I set up Corona Concerts on Facebook, a group to support musicians who relied on gigs for their income to enable them to stream their shows live and find a new audience. We got featured in Metro, the LA Times and musicians joined from all over the world. The group grew to over 1k within a few weeks, chock full of amazingly talented people, who, like me, no longer had any work.

3. April 2020 - I applied for a grant to create ‘Startup School for Seniors’ through London Community Response to support over 50s who had lost their job or been made redundant as a result of the pandemic. 

My colleague Steve and I joined 9 other businesses on the Bethnal Green programme, now being delivered virtually. The first 3 days we spent 18 hours on Zoom and I thought my head was going to explode.

I bought expensive sound recording equipment in the hope I could continue to perform over Facebook or YouTube and build up my small (but dedicated) following. I gave up after a few attempts during which my backing track and I sounded like we were on different continents. I came to recognise the value of a good sound engineer. I returned the cheap mixer I bought to the supplier. My hopes of being a dirty blues worldwide superstar dashed, I returned to singing to my whiteboard, sadly with the date of a cancelled gig, scribbled on it.

4. May 2020 - London Community Response gave us the grant to create Startup School. I recruited Mark Elliott, business coach, and educator, to help me create the curriculum and videos that would be our primary delivery format. He has since become a co-director of Advantages of Age and, like myself, is passionate about supporting the over 50s. He’s a gem.

Meanwhile, my colleague Steve and I were fully immersed in Silver Sharers, interviewing current and would-be customers and doubters too, speaking to investors. Mostly nobody was moving or thinking about moving home. I discovered it’s really hard, during a pandemic, to run a business that depends on older and often vulnerable people being able to conduct viewings.

5. June - The Bethnal Green Venture programme having finished, I delivered my final pitch to a cameraman and a handful of my cohort, the graduation event in an actual venue having been canceled. I was horrified to find a blue dress I wore for the occasion, brought for an appearance on Dragon’s Den that never aired, and had previously been very loose, now revealed a bulging tummy.  Thanks, lockdown. I went online and purchased a 12kg kettlebell.

6. The Summer - Now in full swing with recording videos for Startup School. Plus a rebrand and rebuild of Silver Sharers, after it was revealed from the numerous customer interviews we conducted that very few people over the age of 50 want to be considered ‘silver’ anything.

Bob and I settled into a routine of early evenings spent in my garden, with a glass (or two) of red wine. Remember that bulging tummy I mentioned in June? It was now twice the size. My eldest son returned from NYC and moved in with some old friends. Along with the rest of the nation, he was on furlough, a word that I never knew existed, much less the meaning of, before March.

Bizarrely and unexpectedly, Frugl, a startup I’d created and held onto since 2014, started making money. One day I went into the bank account, that I’d been topping up with £50 every couple of months to keep it limping along, and found over £1k there. Turned out we’d done nearly £20k in sales, netting us a decent amount in affiliate revenue. This was a business that my co-founder Tikiri and I had largely ignored for nearly 2 years and now was generating revenue, disproving the theory that if you want to succeed, you need to work hard. Sometimes all it takes is a good idea and a pandemic.

Oh, and I started another business spurred on by salons with empty chairs to rent and freelancers who needed a place to work called beautistation. It’s on the back burner until I find an industry professional (hairdresser/barber) to take the lead. (I know what you’re thinking, doesn’t this woman already have enough to do? Chill out, for heaven’s sake. Watch a movie. Take a walk. Get out. Talk to people. Yeh, yeh, yeh. Some people get bored and raid the sweets cupboard. I go to Companies House.)

7. September - Mark and I completed recording nearly 50 videos for Startup School. It was exhausting. I think my head exploded multiple times. I saw firsthand how much I used the word ‘like’ in conversation or ‘you know.’ Similar to my realisation years ago, having been an Airbnb host for too long, that I’m not cut out to end my days running a small boutique hotel on the west coast of Mexico, out went any notions of being a TV presenter. I’ll just have to stick to radio. At some point.

Startup School marketing efforts commenced and a friendly journalist from the Guardian (the same one that came to my Silver Sharers event in January) reported about it. We had 57 people sign up for the course, which commenced in October. 

The Silver Sharers rebrand was in full swing, thanks to a conversation with my mother who came up with an alternative name, and I was tasked with talking to investors. I recalled my days trying to raise investment for Frugl years earlier and, a bit like childbirth was reminded of how painful it can be trying to raise money when you don’t look like the usual white, pasty-faced, spotty male that investors are used to funding. For anyone interested, we have a great looking pitch deck. Just ask.

8/9. October-November. Startup School started and finished after 8 weeks and it worked! People started businesses and making money. The testimonials we received from the first cohort made us weep. Our final Zoom session turned into one, big, group hug with lots of tears spilled. I hadn’t cried so much since I watched Echoes of Summer (1976), starring an 11-year-old Jodie Foster who suffers from an incurable heart condition.

10. December - A grant I’d applied for through Facebook to support businesses that had struggled as a result of the pandemic came through for Silver Sharers, enough for advertising and further development work. I heaved a gigantic sigh of relief.

Another grant I’d applied for from Unltd, an organisation that supports social entrepreneurs was given the green light and another from Hammersmith and Fulham and Camden Giving to run another cohort of Startup School for Seniors in January. If you know anyone that wants that could benefit from being part of a supportive group of over 50s, please share the link. All that application writing I’d been doing during 2020? It paid off. If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s how to apply for money.

Finally, I’m testing out running a twice-monthly group on a Sunday morning for an hour to help all those who struggle with getting boring or not so boring tasks, usually internet-related, completed. We come on Zoom, we commit to the group what we’re going to do and then we come back online an hour later and let everyone know how we’ve gotten on. Simple. It starts this Sunday (3rd January) and you can sign up here.

So there we are, or here, in another lockdown, on New Year’s Eve. At the moment, I’m just waiting for Bob to remove the scaffolding pole that is covering the hot tub cover so that tonight we can have one last soak to mark the end of 2020 and the start of 2021. And yes, for those of you who are wondering, the builders are still here, although not for much longer!

Happy New Year everyone. And here’s hoping that 2021 delivers us all the opportunity to get together in a way that doesn’t involve Zoom. Thanks for reading, for commenting, for sharing. Bottoms up.