Figure Out What's Next

From Actuary to Educator: Steve Vernon's Leap into Midlife Entrepreneurship

encore career entrepreneurship mark miller retirement Nov 13, 2009
man and woman conversation

by Mark Miller

photo by StockSnap

After a career giving pension advice to corporations, Steve Vernon retired early to educate others about the next phase of life.

Some people start businesses later in life because they want to; others do it out of necessity after a job loss.

Steve Vernon is among the fortunate ones who made the leap to entrepreneurship on his own. He took early retirement in 2006 from Watson Wyatt Worldwide, the employee benefits consulting firm, where he was a vice president and consulting actuary. At age 53, he left a solid, secure job to start Rest-of-Life Communications, a sole proprietorship focused on educating people about retirement transitions.

"I had worked at Watson Wyatt for 25 years, helping large companies manage their retirement programs. I felt that was long enough, and I didn't want to be the only worker hanging on until retirement. And I saw that vast numbers of baby boomers weren't going to have a traditional retirement--they hadn't saved enough, weren't paying attention to their health and long-term care issues. These things just weren't being discussed.

"Meanwhile, as an actuary myself, I could see the longevity trends and that there was a good change I would live to 90. Did I want to keep doing the same thing I'd been doing for another 20 years? Or was I going to do something that gave me a sense of mission that I would be passionate about--a reason to get up in the morning?"

Vernon took some small steps toward independence while at Watson Wyatt by raising his profile as a speaker and writing two books about retirement education -- Don't Work Forever! Simple Steps Baby Boomers Must Take to Ever Retire, and Live Long and Prosper: Invest in Your Happiness, Health and Wealth for Retirement and Beyond.

The books helped set the stage for a full-time move. He saw going into business for himself as a way to address retirement education at the individual level full-time, and get a better work-leisure balance in his own life.

"I had enough resources saved that I didn't need to keep up the corporate pace, and I could do exactly what I wanted to do, which is to provide people with unbiased, trusted information to help them prepare for retirement. "I saw a need in society for my expertise; my kids were through with college, my mortgage was paid, so I thought, why not?

Vernon's business today is focused on a workshop series, an e-mail newsletter and a series of DVDs and books his company has produced on retirement education. The business is positioned as an unbiased provider of advice, since Vernon isn't selling financial advisory services or products. "I'm not selling anything, so I can tell it like it is. And as an actuary, I can go fairly deep on the financial side of things."

He says he doesn't make as much as he did working for a big consulting firm, but has adjusted happily by "downsizing" his life. That included selling the house where he raised his two kids and moving into a smaller, less expensive townhouse near the ocean north of Los Angeles in Ventura County, where he runs the business out of a home office.

Sole proprietorships like Rest-of-Life are by far the most common form of startup, and we're likely to see more businesses like Vernon's as baby boomers retire from primary careers--voluntarily or through layoffs. The key benefits of working on your own are the lower cost of starting up and a flexible schedule. Vernon says he does miss the social camaraderie of an office environment, but finds that the network of new associates he's developed as an entrepreneur fills most of the gap.

He believes the ideal candidate for a startup is someone who leaves a full-time job voluntarily after taking the time to develop a plan and test the waters.

But he also sees a positive side to starting up out of necessity. "There are a lot of people starting businesses not because they want to, but because they've lost a job," he notes. "Sometimes people need that good kick in the pants to get started, even though it's a very distressing and upsetting process."

Beyond that, Vernon emphasizes the importance of a realistic business plan. "The old saying is--find your passion and most likely you'll wind up broke. In many cases, your passion won't make much money for you. You need to be sure there's a market for what you want to do, and then be very conservative in your projections."

Copyright Tribune Media Services, 2009.


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