The Hard Facts of Second Acts

Switching careers ain’t easy, as one L.A. woman discovered on the path to mid-life reinvention

Photograph by Getty Images/Flickr RF

Lisa Scalia thought she was doing the right thing pursuing a mid-life second act in something she loved. At 47, the Los Angeles real estate appraiser started a culinary walking tour company that helped out-of-towners eat their way through the Original Farmer's Market.

Scalia had the passion, but she lacked experience, sufficient startup capital and timing — she opened Melting Pot Food Tours in 2008, just as the recession took hold.

It was rough going. She held down both jobs for two and a half years, working 80 hours a week, and didn't pay herself a salary in order to pour every possible penny back into the new business. Putting all that time and energy on work strained her marriage and made her more than a little boring to talk to at parties. "We've been living off savings and just basically living very close to the bone. It's not been fun," she says.

Today, Scalia is older and wiser, and the business is good, outlasting a handful of other City of Angels food tour operators that have opened and shut just since last summer.

Her not-so-happily-ever-after tale highlights the reality of reinventing yourself after 45, especially if your fresh start is a new business. In the words of one Ringo Starr, "It don't come easy."

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A cottage industry of coaches, books, seminars and websites has sprung up to help boomers through mid-life career changes. But they often gloss over the hard facts of second acts in their effort to extol the virtues of pursuing a meaning-filled career later in life.

In reality, altering the course of your career is difficult regardless of your age. The more you plan, prepare and save money ahead of making a switch, the better off you'll be.

Career coach Kathy Caprino sees it all the time. People wait until they're so sick of their jobs they leap into something else before doing adequate due diligence to learn whether that new career is a dream job or a nightmare. "Don't wait until you have a crisis. You'll make a mistake because you're desperate," says Caprino, who worked in publishing and marketing, and trained as a therapist before switching to coaching fellow career-changers.

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Before leaping, learn everything there is to learn about what you want to do and shadow people who do what you want to do so you understand what you're getting yourself into, Caprino says.

Even if you do everything right and love your new livelihood, hitting your stride can take longer — a lot longer — than anticipated. "You won't reinvent yourself in a year. It will take years, and you need a plan for that," she says.

Stumbling Down the Road to Success

Scalia knows now she should have done more homework before starting her walking food tour business. Instead, she decided on a whim, asked a sister to be her partner and got $10,000 in seed money from her mother to launch the business. She started with a single tour through the Farmer's Market and Third Street neighborhoods, with close to a dozen stops for nibbles or a small sit-down meal along the way.

It took her at least a year to figure out her little company was in the travel industry, not the food business, a revelation that helped her market it effectively. She also had to teach herself everything about websites, social media and tech tools, enough to know she needed to hire someone else to do it for her. "I spent an inordinate amount of time keeping up with all of it. I might have spent all day trying to hook up a camera to my computer," she says.

Melting Pot Food Tours has grown to running weekly tours of the Farmer's Market, Old Pasadena, Thai Town and East LA, plus private tours. Scalia employs six part-time guides who lead anywhere from 25 to 60 customers a week, each of whom pays $59 to $99 per tour.

Despite relying solely on Internet marketing and word of mouth, buzz is building — another way Scalia measures her success. "I'll be at a networking function and people have heard of me. It's not nearly the unknown quantity it was two or three years ago," she says.

Reinventing yourself can have unintended consequences for your personal life. If you're married or in a relationship, launching a 'new you' at the same time your spouse is ready to slow down can create conflicts. In the early days of the business, Scalia put in so many hours it almost destroyed her marriage. "My husband felt like he was an aside," she says. "We remedied that, but it's still not perfect. When you own your own business, you can't shut it off. I go to sleep thinking about it. I wake up in the morning thinking about it."

Though there are things she'd do differently if she was starting today, Scalia has no regrets. "Everything that everyone says about owning your own business is true," she says. "You have to be strong."

Michelle V. Rafter has written about careers and work for, the Wall Street Journal, and others. She lives in Portland.