Startup Diaries from the UK: Entrepreneurialism Begins at 40!

Paola Fiocchi Van den Brande, Founder of online members only travel club Passepartout Homes Ltd, tells the story of how her entrepreneurial journey started and shares her top ten tips for women thinking of launching their own businesses.

Not in a million years I would have imagined to set up my own business! I mean, at 40 years old, isn’t it too late to treat yourself to a start-up? I should be thinking about retirement plans and anti-aging creams.

The idea came on a flight back to London from our holiday home in Southern Italy, back in April 2011.

Although it’s a much-loved destination for our family and friends, it remains empty for long stretches of the year. We approached a few holiday rental agencies but we didn’t feel at ease having a constant flow of strangers in our home.

Talking to other friends in a similar position, we decided the only viable option would be to create a network of trusted individuals to whom we would feel comfortable opening the doors of our private home, while covering some of the running costs of the property.

So, Passepartout Homes Ltd was created in November 2011 and the website was launched a year later, on a very tight budget.

I took my time. I did not want to rush into things and I was hesitant in giving up my fairly secure corporate job during an economic downturn.

Who else is mad enough to leave a fixed salary for the uncertainties of a new business and with a young family to care for? Well, apparently me.

I was lucky enough to have a supportive husband, encouraging friends and lots of people willing to give free advice. I was fortunate to be able to work with the great team at the marketing consulting group Vaughan Gordon & Associates in London and the extremely professional legal team at Reinhardt LLP in New York, who have been instrumental in shaping the business concept.

As mentioned, I had a limited start-up capital drawn from personal savings. When funds are limited you need to prioritize and be careful where money is being spent, as you can easily dry up your capital in futile and ‘nice-to-have’ accessories. I spent most of my budget in web design and web development, as ultimately my website would have been my main business card. The remaining amount was spent with a capable copywriter, Fiona Tankard, and last, but not least, a brand new, fast Mac computer!

The website was launched two months after the original launch date, so not too bad after all. 

I tried not to make too many changes in the web design or web functionality, as every little amend can cost dearly, although inevitably I had a couple of change of directions along the way.

I work now much harder than when I used to be an employee. Your work becomes your life and your life becomes you work. But I couldn’t be happier and fulfilled. It’s thrilling each time someone new likes your Facebook page or signs up to the website. I have now also achieved another major goal, a much better and more flexible work-like balance, allowing me to spend more quality time with my kids.

Passepartout Homes now offers over 30 properties spanning the globe, from a beachfront apartment in Maui, to country retreats in Tuscany or an über-luxury villa in Koh Samui. More holiday homes are added each week and we have already received our first bookings for the summer.

It’s never too late to start your own business, a safe antidote against mid-life crisis. Lean In, as Sheryl would say.

Well, here are some of my (hopefully inspiring) tips to women thinking about launching their new business (in no particular order):

  1. Be prepared to make lots of mistakes, at least at the beginning.

  2. If your start-up capital is tight, make a list of priorities on where the budget should be spent, to avoid utilizing your budget on nice-to-haves rather than must-haves. Be prepared to do lots yourself; from managing the business, to PR. From social media to preparing tea!

  3. Get techie! Learn all there is to know about social media or SEO.  Although it is very time consuming, you’ve got to be where everyone else is. Be careful, however, not to spend unnecessary time updating all your social media channels.

  4. Research your market and your competition. Be ahead of the game and stay informed on industry trends. Spend lots of time networking and talking to people, family or friends. Ask them what they would expect from a business like yours. Ask them to test drive your products and feed back.

  5. Ask, ask, ask. if you don’t ask, you don’t get. Ask for advice, opinions, feedback, comments, critics... you will be surprised by how many people are willing to give a free hand.

  6. Believe in yourself (this can be actually the hardest part!) and in your products. Don’t listen to those who will tell you ‘it won’t work!’. If you are passionate about your business and are prepared to make lots of sacrifices, ultimately it will work.

  7. Be prepared to work very hard, seven days a week. There is no clocking out at 5pm. Your business becomes your life.

  8. The best business plans are not necessarily 100-pages long. Often a ‘back of the envelope’ plan will be as effective.

  9. There will be good days and bad days. Keep going. And if the day is turning out sour, go for a blow dry!

  10. Rome was not built in a day. Be patient!

Paola Fiocchi Van den Brande is Founder and Director at Passepartout Homes Ltd, an online members only club offering beautiful holiday homes around the globe.After working in various European countries, she moved to the UK over 13 years ago and has worked since then for major international publishing and news companies, most recently for Bloomberg. She holds a Bachelor Degree in German and Russian from the Catholic University in Milan and a Diploma in Direct Marketing from the IDM in London. Her dream is to go back to Italy one day, after having visited all of Passepartout Homes first!

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