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A new start after 50: "After 35 years in advertising, I founded a publishing company – and it exceeded all expectations"

At 59, Dave Woods knew he wanted to start his own business and begin a second career in a totally different industry. And that’s exactly what he did.

At the age of 59, Dave Woods – a creative who has worked in the advertising industry for over 35 years – knew he wanted to start his own business and begin a second career in a totally different industry. And that’s exactly what he did. In 2021, Dave co-founded an online publishing company. Called Be Held, the business offers personalised books for children.

The mission of Be Held is “to champion real books in order to support parents, inspire children and empower families in the digital age,” Dave explains.

However, the BE Books are not your typical children’s stories. They are completely customisable, with a range of themes and, uniquely, a choice of values including BE Brave, BE Safe, BE Independent, BE Yourself and more. The personalisation element means that children take centre stage in wish-fulfilment adventures inspired by real-world events.

“Our BE Books stories activate a child’s understanding of their developing character. They’ll journey to thrilling new worlds, discover hidden life-lessons and return better informed to everyday life. When read with a child these bite-sized morality tales achieve deeper levels of engagement. This provides an opportunity to discuss today’s many challenges together and make intimate moments matter more,” says Dave.

“They’re not just stories, they’re dual-level adventures. When the main fantastical story ends there’s another side to the tale, which is based on a real-life event. A simple everyday event. For example, the BE Brave book, is all about finding your inner courage – so, as a knight’s adventure ends, you discover the ‘real story’ is about the child going to the dentist and needing to find inner courage. At the beginning and end of the books, little sections create opportunities for parent and child to discuss the issues raised – like a focus on teaching children to be strong on the inside. Each book tackles a different value. The BE Safe book is about personal welfare and consequences, and so on. They’re sort of mini morality tales,” he says.

Dave and his business partner, James Butterworth, the other co-founder of Be Held, wanted to create books that bridge the gap between classroom and home. They’ve written the tales for time-poor parents as a way to open up more dialogue with their children. As such the books are a tool to encourage discussion about real-world issues, real-life education as well as emotional education.

When talking about starting a business in his 50s, Dave explains the experience like being born again and if there’s one overarching lesson that came from his journey, it’s that you need to have passion and patience and wait for the right opportunity.

“It was almost three years ago now, in 2019, that my business partner James and I met on a freelance job. We were both advertising creatives. We instantly got on like a house on fire and the seed for Be Held was being sown. He had fabulous creative and design skills, and I’m a writer. Everything just clicked,” Dave explains.

“At that point, I already had a set of children’s books out in British schools and libraries called Pocket Heroes. But it was just a hobby, something to do outside of my advertising day job. These were stories I wrote for my own children when they were younger, and they ended up being published by Hachette.

“I’ve worked as a Creative Director for lots of big agencies, but I’ve always wanted to go back to ‘being a writer’. So, I knew I would start a company at some point. I had a couple of chances to start my own ad agency, but I didn't want to do that. So, I'd been kind of hovering for a while, maybe about six years. I just needed the right opportunity. I knew I didn’t want to do it on my own, so I had patience. Passion and patience.

“And then about a month after I first met James, we met again for a couple of beers to talk about children’s books – and especially about the rapid emergence of personalised books. We also shared our experiences on how hard it was bringing up our own children. My kids were around 16, 18 and 20 at the time, and his around three and five. So we had two different lenses on parenting but were both still really concerned about teaching them the right values in today’s world – with issues like too much screen time, wellbeing and problems with diversity. Different types of challenges that affect not just the child but puts pressure on parents and can create stress for the entire family unit.”

“We also got to talking about the importance of making it home at the end of the day in time for the bedtime reading ritual with children. And we focused on that story time ritual being the key where more could be imparted than just a story – and that’s where the idea for Be Held was born. And from that discussion in the pub, we realised we could make those intimate moments matter more.”

From then on, Dave and James decided they had to do something. They started meeting every Tuesday night, without fail, and the project spring boarded from there. They would work separately around their other freelance gigs, but it quickly became like another full-time job in terms of the effort they put in on top of their other commitments. But they were clear to plan and create. To remain patient and, of course, passionate.

“It was a chance for us to not only do something creative, which we love, but also something really relevant that could help other parents and children. Be Held is ‘personalisation with purpose’ to create tiny, engaging moments where information and discussions can be shared,” Dave says.

“The aim is to help parents build the foundations of a child’s character and values and create a home forum to discuss today’s many challenges. We also proudly support Save the Children, which is our nominated charity partner and helps children the world over.”

One of the benefits of starting a business in your 50s that Dave highlights is the experience and courage to bet on yourself.

“We have been burning up all of our spare time on this project and I had the advantage of being in my 50s which brings with it the confidence to invest in yourself. It was great to be working for ourselves, and not be beholden to anyone else. We were happy to work incredibly hard because rather than getting another salaried job we were building and constructing a ‘job’ and a ‘workplace’ of our own. We don’t actually have a physical workplace because that’s not what we wanted. We work remotely, and it was important to be able to engineer the type of company that is created around our lifestyles that is digital-first and office-free, not just for ourselves but for our families, too.”

With nine different BE Books out to date and more planned for later this year, Dave says the company has five years’ worth of books planned and a “tremendous amount of work ahead of them”. The co-founder says it all comes down to passion and patience – something he says he’s been able to really hone over his years and that he would never have approached starting a business in the same way if he’d been in his 20s. With that in mind, here Dave shares his top tips and biggest learnings and advice for starting a business later in life.

Dave’s Advice for Starting a Business Later in Life

“I’m not a businessman. I’m a creative writer. And I’ve created a life I’m very happy with. Which, for me, is the real measure of success.”

1. Make your hobby your job. Your new business will be like cavity wall insulation – it will expand to fill every nook and cranny of your waking existence. Enjoy a lie-in? Forget it. But you’ll feel alive and plugged in to the ‘now’ (which is what it’s all about, isn’t it?). Even if it goes well – you’ll need to keep pushing. And really liking what you do, really helps.

2. Keep yourself fit. For me, the whole ‘healthy body, healthy mind’ thing is absolutely true – and you’re going to need it because starting a new business when you’re over 55 is like becoming a parent all over again. It’s all-consuming. On the upside though, it may well extend your stay on this mortal coil by a decade or two. (Well, that’s my plan anyway.)

3. Draw on friends’ experience. Unless you’ve been the most self-centred, zero-empathy, my-way-or-the-highway type operator throughout your career, you should have access to a network of wise guys & gals whose advice you can tap into. In fact, you might be pleasantly surprised how supportive and complimentary they are.

4. Make sure you’ve got your charity in place before you launch. If you’re over 55 and you’ve got the means (and energy!) to kick-off a new business venture, then somewhere along the line the gods have smiled on you. So give some help back to those that really need it. It doesn’t have to be the only reason you start a business – but it will be the thing that makes you smile as you put your (tired old) head on the pillow at night.

5. Embrace uncertainty. Let’s face it, if you could read the future, you’d be bored stiff. OK, your start-up might not work. (Boo.) Or it might work well. (Yay.) But it might also evolve into something beyond all expectations. Yes, legacy. You might not even see the final vision. (But it sounds better than pottering around trying to contain the mole menace lurking beneath your perfectly manicured lawn, doesn’t it?)

Suitable for children from zero to eight, personalised children’s books by Be Held start from £19.99, visit the website here now

We have an exclusive discount for 55/Redefined members to get 25% off. Code: giftstory25. Please note, personalised books take six to seven days to individually print and deliver.