Beverly Nance is positively passionate about puzzles.
Throughout her life, puzzles have been everything from a cure for boredom to a comfort in trying times. “When I was going through my divorce, things were getting really heavy,” she says. It helped to have “my fingers do something so relaxing” while navigating the painful 2000 breakup.
Puzzles have also been a bridge to love, helping her connect with her daughter, who is autistic. Nance had struggled for years to engage her child — until one surprising day when her daughter asked to help with her puzzle du jour.
It was that quiet, special moment with her kid that ultimately inspired Nance to launch her Stockbridge, Ga., company Puzzlebilities, which manufactures and sells custom puzzles that feature either standard photographs or ones submitted by customers, both to individual and wholesale clients. “I thought, why not turn my hobby into a business, and help her as well” by sparking her imagination and giving the two of them more opportunities bond?
She started Puzzlebilities in 2013, but in truth, Nance is just getting started as an entrepreneur in her 50s. She only began focusing on the venture full-time last year, after retiring from a more than three-decade career at the United States Postal Service (USPS).
In 2016, Nance sold about 500 puzzles and brought in revenue just under $11,000. Apart from herself, she has just one part-time employee on the payroll (in addition to her daughter, who occasionally serves as a hand model for the company site).
Puzzlebilities may be small, but it is already making a difference in people’s lives. Take the mother of a child with special needs who gushed about the moment her son said he loved her over a puzzle on the company’s Facebook page.
It’s the kind of customer feedback that “keeps me going,” says Nance, who extolls the virtues of using puzzles to reach people with autism and Alzheimer’s disease — to connect with family and friends through the fog and confusion of mental disorders by working on something creative together. Puzzles have always been important to her, but “now I see how they change another person’s life.”
Piecing Together a Second, Post-Retirement Career
After graduating from San Diego State University, Nance took a job at USPS, where she worked for nearly 35 years. And she was still a full-time postal worker when she started up her venture in 2013.
At first, she focused on perfecting her puzzle-making technique using a machine bought online from a manufacturer in Canada. Once she got the hang of it, she began bringing her puzzles to street fairs near her California home at the time. “People thought it was a cute idea,” Nance says. But it was weekend gig for the most part, since she was working nights and raising two children during the day. In addition to her daughter, who is now 24, Nance has a 27-year-old son.
In October of 2016, Nance, who had moved to Georgia a dozen years earlier, retired from the USPS. With that career behind her, she embraced a new one featuring Puzzlebilities — and business quickly picked up from there. In addition to growing word-of-mouth sales, she also began offering her puzzles through Amazon, Walmart and other online retailers.
Puzzlebilities has benefitted from the creative uses folks have found for her puzzles, she says. It has made puzzles to entertain wedding reception guests and as giveaways for a nearby nature preserve. “You can pretty much do whatever you want with them,” she says.
But creating puzzles that help families bond with loved ones who have autism and Alzheimer’s has been the most meaningful part of her work. For those with autism, she says puzzles provide an opportunity for patients and families to communicate more fluidly while working together on a project. And relatives of Alzheimer’s patients sometimes order puzzles featuring family photos, to help patients retain their memories of loved ones’ faces. “It’s not going to solve the problem, but it does give them an activity to do, and something they can work toward.”
Nance sees a world of possibility for Puzzlebilities. And, uninterested in spending this chapter of her life sitting idly by, she has been happy to dedicate her retirement to entrepreneurship. “Retirement gives me the time to learn new things that help my business,” like social media and other marketing strategies, she says. “Because I make my own hours, and work when I choose, I’m still able to enjoy retirement.”
She isn’t the only one finding entrepreneurial success in her golden years. A 2014 Gallup poll found that women and men over 50 are one of the fastest-growing groups of individuals launching businesses in the United States, driven by desires to be independent, pursue interests and passions, and increase their incomes.
Picturing her Next Steps
Nance intends to be a thriving member of this “encore” career population. She says the arrival of wedding season has led to another uptick in business for Puzzlebilities. And she’s also beginning to incorporate philanthropy into her business model.
Recently, she gave away puzzles to winners of an Autism Awareness Month contest she held. And she aims to one day start nonprofits that will raise funds to help families of people with autism and Alzheimer’s pay for medical and other expenses — and donate puzzles regularly.
In the meantime, Nance is also pursuing writing and public speaking, to further elevate her brand. She wrote an article for this May’s issue of Autism Parenting Magazine and contributed to “Driven Success,” a series of books and videos designed to inform and inspire other entrepreneurs.
Indeed, connecting with others is what inspires her work daily, she says. “There’s the social aspect of working on a puzzle with someone else while having a conversation that’s so much better than being on a cellphone, or texting. You could be working on a project together — it sparks a conversation.”