Golden idea: Quit and start an elder care business

@Money March 8, 2012: 5:34 AM ET
Greg and Lisa Hartwell, both 47 of Palo Alto, Calif, left their careers as a tech marketer and realtor, to become senior home care entrepreneurs.

Greg and Lisa Hartwell, both 47 of Palo Alto, Calif, left their careers as a tech marketer and realtor, to become senior home care entrepreneurs.

(MONEY Magazine) -- The more Greg Hartwell's workdays filled with meetings, the less he felt he was accomplishing. "There were hours-long teleconferences, followed by conference-room sessions," he says, recalling the marketing job he held at IBM in 2008. "Most of what we did added very little value."

He glimpsed a more fulfilling alternative whenever his wife Lisa shared details of the one day a week she spent as a volunteer assisting seniors who lived on their own.

"I'd drive them to appointments, read them their mail, or just sit with them and talk," says Lisa, who worked the rest of the week as a real estate agent. "I really enjoyed my time with them."

Her experiences gave the couple the idea for a business, one that would provide caregivers to help elderly folks with nonmedical tasks like cooking meals and running errands. With the first boomers turning 65, the Hartwells saw explosive demand ahead. And they felt they could use their backgrounds -- his in "solutions," hers in customer service -- to improve on what was available.

So Lisa began working toward certification as a home care manager while Greg spent his evenings talking with pros in related fields.

"People had mixed experiences with home care," he says. He saw room to create a brand customers would associate with reliability and consistency.

The Hartwells incorporated Homecare California in August 2008, while Greg was still at IBM. They continued to refine their strategy up until Greg quit Big Blue in January 2009. By then, the business was ready to take on its first clients, who found the firm via ads and word of mouth.

Last year revenue hit $2.6 million, and Greg and Lisa took home $80,000. While that's still far from their old income ($300,000), there are other perks.

"When I visit clients, their faces light up," says Greg, "and that's very gratifying."

How they did it

Amount it took to start up: $250,000. In hopes of launching a business, Greg and Lisa had sold investments -- mostly exercised stock options -- a few years earlier, netting $400,000 after taxes. Just over half that went toward initial costs for Homecare California.

Time before they drew income from the business: 20 months. The Hartwells scaled back on spending -- and put the brakes on saving for retirement and college. (They have two teen daughters.) They've been using the leftovers of their $400,000 cushion to help cover living expenses.

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Rate the business grew each month in 2011: 7%. And that's the growth rate the Hartwells intend to maintain for 2012. If they do, Homecare California should break $5 million and the couple will take home at least $140,000. "It's achievable, given the demand," says Hartwell. They plan to resume college savings next year.

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