Characterizing a Boomer business as a retirement hobby is as misleading as saying all 20-somethings launch app companies. Still, startups by people over age 50 tend to skew small. Gallup reports that 80 percent are lifestyle businesses meant to supplement retirement income and keep the mind engaged.
Jeff Williams, founder of BizStarters, a service that coaches older entrepreneurs, says roughly 60 percent of the clients he’s worked with in the course of 20 years “are much more interested in schedule flexibility than making a ton of money. They want the feeling that, after they have been in business for six months, they can take three weeks off to go visit their grandkids.” Very few older founders are trying to replace corporate salaries, says Williams. Instead, average earnings expectations are between $50,000 and $75,000 a year.
The majority also prefer to be soloists, drawing on contract help when necessary. “I get these guys who come to me–they are 57 years old–and they say, ‘Been there, done that, already managed people,'” says Williams. “‘I would like to grow a company without employees.'”
The internet, which enables virtual sales and sourcing as well as employment, has made such lone-wolf enterprises easier. It also makes starting and running a business less physically taxing. That’s allowed more people with declining energy or other limitations to launch businesses, says Annamaria Lusardi, a professor at the George Washington University School of Business. Lusardi compared demographics of entrepreneurs in 1998 and 2012 and found “there are actually more health problems among the ones in 2012, and they are also older.” Enabling technology, she says, likely contributed to that change.
Elaine Povinelli is a typical lifestyle entrepreneur. In 2010, at age 54, Povinelli began casting about for a business idea. She was willing to put in serious startup time in anticipation that later, with operations running smoothly, she could taper off into semiretirement. “As long as I can make a living, I am not looking to get rich,” she says. “I have worked so hard my whole life. I don’t want to work more than 20 hours a week right now.”
Povinelli launched Dainty Wrist Jewelry, an online seller of bracelets for the small-boned, while employed full time at a bank. For several years, she worked on the business evenings and weekends. Then, in 2015, she decided to quit her day job and make a full go of it. She’s done everything on the cheap, creating her own website and employing experts in search engine optimization and social media just long enough to learn by observation how to do those jobs herself.
Povinelli says a small-scale business suits her just now. With age, material goods matter less. “When I was younger, I always wanted to have a lot of money and have the big house and the boat and the cars,” she says. “That’s not my driving force anymore. I want to be with my grandkids.”
James Glay has been preparing to start his business since the 1980s–long before the internet existed. That’s when he began collecting vintage musical instruments, with the intention of opening a brick-and-mortar store to sell them post-retirement. But, in 2008, Glay, then 59, was laid off after 24 years doing sales and promotion for a French classical record label. Soon after, he created the online store Crash Boom Bam, with inventory that included 40 drum sets, 90 snare drums, cymbals, and assorted other instruments.
Glay continues to expand inventory, making judicious buys based on 30 years’ experience. Most of his sales are international, to collectors in Japan, England, Switzerland, and Germany. “I have done very well with this,” says Glay. “Since it’s not a brick-and-mortar store, I don’t have any employees, and all the inventory is paid for. It is a pretty nice deal.”
But recognition matters more than money, says Glay. He frequently posts videos of himself discussing or playing drums, and those have earned him friends and admirers in the music community. Before Crash Boom Bam, “I was just the guy who would go to drum shows and buy a drum–an unknown collector,” says Glay. “Now I get phone calls from people and talk to people and they know who I am.”
Willams says entrepreneurs like Povinelli and Glay are part of the “Boomer business bonanza. More than 70 percent of Boomers say they want to continue to work into their 60s,” says Williams. “That is the sociological driver for everything.”
Editor’s note: People over 50 are among the country’s most active entrepreneurs, starting businesses at rates higher than their young counterparts. In this series, Inc. profiles the new wave of Boomer founders.