Interview by Ceri Wheeldon
In our latest midlife career reinvention interview, Sue-Anne talks about the business she set up specifically for women over 50, combing travel with the opportunity to forge new friendships.
Tell us a little about yourself
I’m Sue-Anne, Founder of SisterStay. I live in Kent with my husband and for the past year or more, during lockdown, all three adult children too! I grew up in Australia and have spent several fabulous years in Japan, but have called England my home for the past 30. I love being surrounded by beautiful green countryside and old buildings and I love living so close to the rest of the world. I’m a big fan of seasonal change and foraging so England is the perfect place for me.
What were your main activities before turning 50?
Although I originally trained as a Japanese interpreter, I gave up work when my twins were born and didn’t go back for a long time after my last child. I tried to emulate my own mother who dedicated her life to community service and bringing up me and my five brothers and sisters, but she’s a hard act to follow! Eventually, I took on an administrative role with a charitable trust, always trying to fit things around my family. By the time I hit my 50s, I was desperate to do something outside of the family and preferably of my own making.
What have been your main activities since turning 50?
Once I could see an empty nest within reach, I started to plan for a brand new chapter! I love to travel and meet new people and I love to have friends come to stay with me. Maybe that’s partly because I grew up in a house where exchange students from all over the world came to stay with us for months at a time.
Before lockdown, I used to travel home to Australia at least once a year to see my elderly Dad and my brothers and sisters in different parts of the country and I would often pop in to visit old friends too. It’s all so easy when you have somewhere friendly and flexible to stay.
On one particular trip I just remember thinking how wonderful it would be if there was some way of travelling everywhere so safely, easily and affordably – staying with others at a similar stage in life who were also keen to meet new people and explore new places. There must be loads of us, right? And not just women on their own, but married ones too whose partners like doing different things. Who wants to have to convince someone to go with them? Or wait until they’re free?
As I transited through Singapore on my way home from that trip, I popped into the airport bookshop, as I always do, and there on the front bookstand was the recently published “Story of AirBnB”. What an omen! I devoured it in no time, thinking all the way through, this could totally work for a community of older women like me.
Challenging ourselves to do new things
Women often talk about feeling invisible as they age. Part of that, I think, is because we stop doing some of the exciting and adventurous things we used to do when we were younger. Challenging ourselves to do new things and step out of our comfort zones is a great way to stay curious and engaged with life and it’s a good way of staying visible too.
In setting up SisterStay, I hoped to embolden women everywhere by providing a ready-made friend wherever we go. Someone who will let us in on all the best-kept secrets of their area and make us feel at home. They may or may not actually do things with us – that depends on which “level” of Host they are – but we will always be guaranteed of a warm welcome and genuine human connection.
Watching my Mum’s world shrink as she grew older was very sad. She never really did anything without my Dad even though they enjoyed quite different things. I like to think if SisterStay had been around then, it might have allowed my Mum to do one or two of the things she loved with other like-minded women.
What prompted you to follow your dream.
I always knew I was capable of something bigger than I had done to date. Turning 50 reminded me to hurry up and get started. It’s never too late, for sure, but it’s never too early either!!
Starting anything like this demands a huge amount of energy and dedication. With two sons away from home and a third getting ready to leave, I thought it was time to carpe the diem.
Did you have to take any courses or training to do this?
I read loads of books and articles about becoming an entrepreneur and setting up a website and business but the most helpful was probably “The Lean StartUp” by Eric Ries which my niece gave me for Christmas. Also, a very dear friend taught me how to use Canva and navigate social media which I had never previously used! It’s been a steep learning curve.
What does your business look like today?
We are still in the early stages, but despite the pandemic – not a great help to a fledgling travel business! – SisterStay has a growing number of overseas members so I am proud to call it a global homestay community. I get all excited by the word “global” and look forward to the day when we have thousands of life-loving women all over the world opening their doors to one another.
How has the pandemic affected SisterStay?
It’s not been ideal, obviously, but I hope it will help us all to reassess how we approach life. We’ve been deprived of so many things we previously took for granted: meeting up with friends, enjoying little visits to galleries and museums and concerts and theatre, taking interesting courses, eating out, going for day trips, travelling both at home and abroad and exploring new places. Life is short and the there’s so much to see and do.
I think perhaps we will all strive a little harder to make the most of life in future and I hope we do it with a greater appreciation for how lucky we are and what incredible opportunities we have available to us. When it comes to travel, my wish is that we all try to connect more with the places we visit and the people who live there. I heard, before lockdown, of a woman who visited New Zealand for three weeks and didn’t connect with a single person who wasn’t serving her a meal or making up her hotel room which I thought was a missed opportunity and such a shame.
Creating a welcoming community
By staying with another 50+ woman in her home, you get all the local knowledge and inside information as well as connecting with a real person. Since we’re all a part of the same welcoming community and since we can read up about one another before agreeing to stay, it’s very easy to find people with similar interests and outlooks. If you’re both into singing or hiking or deep sea diving, you’ll likely make a new friend as well as having a comfortable place to stay.
And let’s not overlook what’s been happening in so many places where landlords are buying up properties to let solely to tourists; those places are ghost towns in the off-season. Homestays are a great way to keep the local community alive.
What has been the best aspect of your journey so far?
Finding my own self-confidence. It’s been such a journey, but I can see that I am not the same woman who first came up with this idea. I took on a partner when I first started because I didn’t think I could do it alone. But then when she didn’t have the time to commit to it, I realised it didn’t matter. When you really believe in something, you find the strength to do it.
What was your biggest fear?
I worried I wouldn’t be up to it! But now, I can see that many lifelong insecurities have finally been put to rest.
Did anybody in particular inspire you?
My mother dedicated her whole life to the service of others. She was super kind and supportive to everyone around her. I am inspired by her goodness and generosity of spirit to make this a community for everyone; that’s a big motivator behind the uniform overnight cost. Most travel platforms have variable pricing structures with everyone charging the maximum they can. That’s a great way to make money when you are taking a percentage of the overnight fee as an administrative charge, but I really love the idea of everyone charging the same, flat affordable rate of £36/night. It doesn’t matter if you’re offering a King size bed with an en suite or a single bed with a shared bathroom; you are staying with – and supplementing the income of – another 50+ woman as you both weave your way through this second half of life. This will be particularly powerful when we start to attract Hosts in developing countries.
I have to say I was also very inspired by Trish Cusden of Look Fabulous Forever who started her makeup business at 66 and now has a huge following of loyal women who not only use her wonderful cosmetics, but have formed a really supportive online community who discuss all aspects of the aging process with one another.
Building a strong community
What difference has it made to your life?
The thought of an empty nest was really intimidating for me. I have always identified strongly as ‘mother’ so I was worried that once all my children left home, I’d feel very lost and rudderless. Starting SisterStay – and building this community of women who also want to make the most of life – has been a game changer. I feel really proud of what I am doing and I feel like I am providing a new kind of role model for my kids who can see how dedicated and focussed I am.
What challenges did you initially face? How did you overcome them?
It’s been a hugely steep learning curve setting up the website and convincing people to hand over their details (for verification) and join something so new. I just assumed everyone would want to tell their following about us, but I think you need to put in the time and the work to prove that you’re serious and you’re here to stay. We’ve never done any advertising so we are very dependent on word of mouth. I think SisterStay will grow relatively slowly in these early years and then hit a point at which it begins to snowball. Ultimately, I know we will have thousands of women all over the world opening their homes to one another which is a wonderful image.
What other opportunities have materialised as a result of starting SisterStay?
One of the very best aspects of setting up Sister Stay has been meeting all these lovely women. Because I verify each new member personally, I feel like I have got to know everyone and that’s been fabulous. I am also super excited about some of the travel opportunities which we will all have after the pandemic. I can’t wait to go back to Japan for an extended stay!
What are your next steps?
I would really like to spread the word about SisterStay far and wide and recruit lots of Hosts in different places. The more women who join, the more fun it will be for everyone.
How have friends and family reacted?
My husband and sons probably don’t really understand my desire for all-female holidays, but spending time with older women is very comfortable and relaxing and a great antidote to living in a house full of testosterone! My friends have been very supportive. My biggest fans are always going to be other 50+ women who understand what it is to want to be able to travel safely, easily and affordably staying with “a friend they’ve not yet met”.
Not really. Life’s too short for regrets. We have to believe that everything up to now – both good and bad – has played a necessary part in making us the unique individuals we are.
What 3 tips would you give other women over 50 looking to do something similar?
- Find a niche. You can never be too niche.
- Hunker down. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Or even a week. Or a year. But Rome is a magnificent place. Starting anything requires huge reserves of staying power.
- Believe in yourself.
A little bit more about you……
I grew up in Australia as one of six kids. I was a bit of a feral kid really, running about everywhere barefoot and getting into trouble! It was a major culture shock when I first went to Japan as an exchange student after secondary school. They took one look at me, all skinny and brown, and decided I needed fattening up. I put on 12kg in the first three months there and have had a love affair with Japanese food ever since.
I’m an enthusiast. When I decide to do something, I do it to death.
I don’t want to grow old before my time. I have friends in their 80s who seem younger than other people I know in their 50s. It’s all in our outlook. I like to stay active and curious. SisterStay is just an extension of this desire to lead my best life and make the most of every day.
All time favourite book or film?
I am, perhaps strangely, a huge fan of the Master & Commander series. In fact, I read 19 of Patrick O’Brien’s 21 books without stopping to read anything else! Then suddenly I needed a break – seasickness, I think – and I never went back. But it is still a firm favourite. Much more than the battles and bravery, I love the gentle relationship between the captain and his surgeon.
How would you describe your own style?
I’m afraid I’m not very stylish!! I’m super casual. I love bright colours, hot pink lipstick, scarves of all kinds and happy earrings. I am also a big fan of all things preloved and upcycled.
Three words that sum up your life over 50
Positive. Focussed. Optimistic.