Type “retirement” into any stock photo site’s search bar and most of the results include either white-haired golfers or two beach chairs facing a sunset.
The sedentary life of beaches and leisure sports might suit some as a reward for years of hard work, but it might in fact be detrimental to the health of others. Removing yourself from working life not only means the actual work—any associated routine, social interaction, and activity (say, walking to the office) goes with it.
So what if retirement looks more like work and less like golf and beach chairs? It’s not a totally bonkers idea—entrepreneurship among the 55-64 age bracket has actually increased by 10% in ten years.
Retiring at 60 is not the same as it was decades ago—we’re living longer, we have better health care. And for people who have worked their entire lives, the passive life of retirement might feel like the opposite of freedom.
If sitting still just isn’t your thing, it’s the perfect time to quash the “should haves” and “would haves”. Starting a business in retirement carries less risk than it might have in your youth, keeps you active, and can help offset the cost of a passion project.
We talked to one Shopify merchant who did just that, finding happiness in working after retiring from working.
Meet Maximus and Penelope
When Bernie Rothrock retired from 30 years of teaching, he accepted his brother-in-law Tom’s offer to manage his alpaca ranch. The ranch was Tom’s own keep-busy project after retiring from an executive position in corporate travel, Bernie tells me.
"He was the kind of guy who could not sit still. When he retired, he had this three acre garden, and eventually said, ‘I’ve got to raise something.’ He started investigating and that's when the alpaca bubble started. Everybody was saying ‘Oh, this is the best investment,” so he invested. He was going to start small, just have a small herd. Then the business savvy kicked in.”
He was going to start small, just have a small herd. Then the business savvy kicked in.
Tom built the ranch up to 133 animals at its peak, and it thrived as a breeding operation. Bernie and his wife moved closer to the ranch to begin their new “working” life in retirement.
“We didn't have any definite retirement plans, didn’t know what we were going to do, so we decided that would be a good thing. I had never worked with any animals whatsoever in my lifetime.”
When Tom passed away three years ago, much of the herd was sold, and the ranch was purchased by new owners to use as a getaway home. The alpaca market had crashed, and animals that once fetched up to $15,000 were now going for less than $1000. There was no longer money in breeding, but Bernie and his family just focused on finding good homes.
In his time working with the alpacas, Bernie became quite attached. And the role kept him just busy enough. Since the new owners had no use for the barn, they allowed Bernie to keep 11 alpacas on the property. He continued to care for the alpacas as a hobby, as pets, with no intention breed them for profit.
“Alpacas are just really nice, neat little animals. They're fun to watch, fun to interact with. And our grandkids love them. The new owners provide the facilities and I provide the work, so that works out pretty well.”
In the meantime, Bernie’s son Drew graduated from college and moved north to Ottawa, home of Shopify HQ. He now works as a guru on our support team.
“Around that time my son approached me to ask if there was anything we could do with Shopify. I started brewing beer a couple years before, and I had a little home brew brand that I called Alpaca Wiz. He said, ‘Can we do something with that?’ but it's illegal to sell home brew. Then he said, ‘What about socks?’ My sister-in-law had a store at the ranch. She went to lots of festivals and sold a lot of different alpaca products, but the socks always sold really well.”
Each year, before the hot Missouri summers take hold, the alpacas are sheared to remove their warm wooly coats. It’s a process that takes only 5 minutes in each year of the alpaca’s life, but it’s a harrowing 5 minutes nonetheless. The result is win-win: a cooler summer haircut for the alpacas, and super warm fiber for producing goods.
“Alpacas don't like the summers. A lot of time they’re in the barn where we have fans blowing on them. I'll go in a couple times a day on real hot days, spray their bellies with water to cool them down. As soon as you get that hose out, man they line up like a car wash. It's funny. Some of them will just keep circling back and crowd back in line.”
The resulting fibre is sent to a fibre co-op and turned into products like socks, hats, and mittens. Co-op prices are lower than wholesale for ranchers like Bernie, because he’s providing the raw materials.
“We knew that alpaca socks were just really high quality. People who bought them went on and on about how nice they were. At the beginning didn't quite know what to expect, so we probably brought about $1000 worth of socks, and said ‘If they don't sell, we have lots of nice Christmas presents for the next few years.’ We started last year on Cyber Monday. Within a day, I'm calling my wife and saying ‘We need more socks!’”
We started last year on Cyber Monday. Within a day, I'm calling my wife and saying ‘We need more socks!’
Maximus & Penelope—named for two alpacas in the herd—is now a thriving Shopify store, run by a retiree with no previous entrepreneur or marketing experience. Drew helped his father get the store off the ground, but says his Dad should take more credit—Bernie has been managing the day to day of the business and the ranch easily on his own, with little to no intervention from his son.
“We just said, ‘Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Let's see what happens.’ We've been pleasantly surprised how well it's worked out.”
How to Start a Business After You Retire
Retirees are actually very suited to entrepreneurship. Boomers grew up in an era of mom and pop shops, and starting from the bottom. They are a generation with scrappiness and resourcefulness built-in—handy skills for running businesses.
Seniors also have more life experience, and in many cases more business experience, and hard-earned self-awareness. Let’s also not forget that the risk is much, much lower: pensions provide back up, the kids are on their own, and living expenses are typically lower.
But let’s first talk about why you should start a business in retirement.
There are plenty of benefits to starting a business in retirement, and you'll still have room for tons of R&R.
It’s no surprise that study after study says staying physically active can stave off health issues and prolong your life. But keeping an active mind can also reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Entrepreneur life can involve both physical (packing orders, trips to the post office) and mental (writing product page copy, planning marketing campaigns) exercise.
Pursuing a Passion
My father retires in exactly a month from today. He’s been a working man for 42 years, doing roughly the same desk job, week in and week out, for more than two thirds of his life.
But actually, he’s a gifted artist. Art is what he would have done, if like many people, he didn’t take the practical route to provide for his family.
Over the years, my dad has been tinkering on art projects in his studio in the evenings. He thrives on tinkering, and, in a month, he’ll be doing it full-time. The freedom from his 9 to 5 will afford him time to pursue his creative calling, without the pressure to provide. He’ll be able to sell his creations, if he chooses, and the profits will be gravy.
The freedom from his 9 to 5 will afford him time to pursue his creative calling, without the pressure to provide.
Supplement Your Pension
Depending on your situation, you may be relying on reduced income after you retire. A small business could provide extra spending money for travel. Bernie and his wife say they don't worry about spending money on travel to see their kids—the extra cash from the business helps ease the burden.
Funding a Hobby
In Bernie’s case, the goal of Maximus & Penelope was never to provide for his family. His kids are grown up, and he and his wife live comfortably on teachers’ pensions. Regardless of the success of the online store, he’d still care for alpacas—it’s his hobby and provides him joy.As a bonus, however, the online store provides enough profit to offset the cost of raising the animals.
Same goes for hobbies like woodworking or needlecraft—sell handmade items online or at local fairs to help pay for materials and fund a retirement hobby.
Business Ideas for Seniors
Ecommerce is an excellent option for retirees, as it doesn’t necessarily require a ton of mobility, and has the flexibility to be run from anywhere, from home or an RV. Or, well, an alpaca ranch.
What you decide to sell is up to you, but if the goal is not to make money, dig into your interests and hobbies and choose something that brings you joy. Do you enjoy travel, for example? Start a travel blog and use it to push to a store where you sell related products.
If the goal is not to make money, dig into your interests and hobbies and choose something that brings you joy.
Or, tap into your career experience: did you work in corporate interior design? Sell consultations for smaller residential projects.
Here are some other ideas to consider:
- Services: you can sell services like landscaping or pet sitting—activities that can keep you physically active—focusing on your community and picking your own hours
- Dropshipped goods: this is one of the most hands-off of ecommerce businesses, and ideal for new entrepreneurs who want to make a little extra travel money with minimal effort
- Handcrafted goods: take the church bazaar to the next level. What are you already doing in your spare time? Sell your handcrafted dollhouses or crocheted blankets online
- Teaching: You have a wealth of life and work experience! How can you monetize what you know? Sell video or PDF instructional courses—digital products require more work up front, but have excellent margins for minimal effort in the long run
I don’t have to tell you that the best way to get started is to just, well, start. Begin a free trial on Shopify and play with your new store on us for 14 days.
Financing Your New Business
We’ve told you time and time again that you can start a business on $0 budget. It’s possible. If the point of starting your business is staying active, there’s no need to invest a lot up front anyway. I wouldn’t necessarily advise downsizing your living situation to fund your project.
- Plan Ahead: if you’re still a few years out from retirement, factor your business needs into your retirement planning, and start saving now.
- Start Small: don’t invest a ton into a business idea simply because you’re passionate about it. Test your idea with a small audience, make or purchase a few prototypes to see how they sell. Bernie made only a $1000 investment and started with one product:
“Alpaca products are a little bit pricey. Socks come in at about $20 a pair. When you compare those to wool socks, there's going to be a little reluctance. If you talk about an alpaca sweater, you're talking 150, 200 dollars. We thought we'll just start out with socks and judge interests there.”
- Keep it Lean: forget hiring a designer or developer for now—use a free Shopify theme and create simple branding with pre-made graphics and our logo generator tool, and DIY your product photos with an iphone and a few simple tricks.
- Borrow Against Retirement Savings: in the United States, you can borrow against your 401(k) like a small business loan, up to 50% of your total funds. Check with your local government for rules specific to your country or region.
- Consider a Micro-loan: Keep an eye out on the SBA’s website (or your local government’s small business site) for small loans and grants specific to retirees or seniors.
- Get Advice: before starting any business, talk with your financial advisor, or tap into free small business advice resources like SCORE
Don’t invest a ton into a business idea simply because you’re passionate about it.
Keep it in the Family
Bernie and Drew might live in different countries, but Maximus & Penelope has been the catalyst for keeping them connected regularly. His wife has even joined the team, and between caring for her grandkids, she’s managing the store’s social accounts.
Consider starting a business that brings your family together, and builds a legacy for future generations to carry on in your name.
Both Jaswant Kular and “Mommy” Choi run businesses on Shopify with the help of their grown-up children. “I have always tried to instil the thought in my children that you can do anything you set your mind to and that nothing is impossible,” Jaswant says of her own entrepreneurial aspirations.
Play up your Strengths (Learn the Rest)
Bernie’s 30 years as a teacher has made him quite the wordsmith. He writes all of the site’s copy, product descriptions, and blog posts.
It’s never too late to learn something new, however. In New York, the public libraries and parks Department offer free courses for seniors from basic computer skills to web design. Check with your local government or community centres for programs catering to seniors in your area.
Have an Exit Strategy
Not to get morbid here, but frankly we all have a finite time on this earth. What’s your plan when you are no longer able to manage the business? Are your family members interested in taking the reins? Are the business accounts factored into your will?
"A lot of people got into the alpaca business as a retirement plan, so they were old or older. You're just one health issue away from no longer being able to care for your herd. Be aware of that. We don't want to get stuck in a place where we have 26 alpacas that we can't manage.”
We don't want to get stuck in a place where we have 26 alpacas that we can't manage.
For the Kids and Grandkids
I have to confess that I doubt my own parents’ ability to start a Shopify store without some serious hand-holding (sorry mom and dad). They have a handle on the internet in general, and use Facebook on the regular, but I’m nonetheless dubious.
Drew tells me, however, that although his dad may have needed a little nudging, he is easily running the store on his own. And, Bernie says that managing the Shopify store is the easiest part of his day.
Lesson: old dogs can learn new tricks.
If your parent or grandparent is retiring, you can help them build a new life in retirement. What can you work on together? What technical skills can you bring to the table?
For Bernie and his herd, they’re happy breaking even and having a little extra money to travel and enjoy a peaceful retirement. Growth isn’t on his radar at the moment, but he’s still a budding entrepreneur, after all.
"I really did not have that entrepreneurial bug, if you will. It was happenstance. Things just worked out.”