Starting a Retirement Business: How This Former Teacher Became an Alpaca Rancher

Bolivian Alpaca on the background of blue clouds South America

Type “retirement” into any stock photo catalog’s search bar and most of the results will include either white-haired golfers or two beach chairs facing a sunset.

The sedentary life of mid-day cocktails 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 removing yourself from the actual work—any associated routine, social interaction, and activity (say, walking to the office) goes with it.

So what if retirement looked more like work and less like golf and sandy beaches? It’s not a completely absurd idea. Rates of entrepreneurship within the 55–64 age bracket have been climbing in recent decades, with this group accounting for 26% of new business owners in 2017 versus 15% in 1996.

For people who have worked their entire lives, the passive life of retirement might feel like the opposite of freedom.

Retiring at 65 is not the same as it was decades ago. For one thing, we’re living longer and retiring later—one study found that Americans staying in the workforce cite financial, social, and work satisfaction as reasons not to rush to retire. And when they do, some take on part-time work for the same reasons. For people who have worked their entire lives, the passive life of retirement might feel like the opposite of freedom.

If sitting around just isn’t your thing, retirement is the perfect time to quash the “should haves” and “would haves.” Starting a business in retirement is the opportunity to live out the dreams you may have put on hold for “someday.” Today is someday. And entrepreneurship 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 small business owner who did just that—and found happiness in working after retiring from working. We’ve also compiled a list of retirement business ideas, tips, and advice for starting your own project.

Meet Maximus and Penelope

An alpaca sleeping in the grass
"Alpacas are just really nice, neat animals,” says Bernie. Maximus & Penelope

When Bernie Rothrock retired after 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. “He was the kind of guy who could not sit still,” says Bernie. “When he retired, he had this three-acre garden and eventually said, ‘I’ve got to raise something.’” Tom heard that alpaca ranching was a good investment and started with a small herd.

But soon, Tom’s business drive kicked in. He built the ranch up to 133 animals at its peak, and it thrived as a breeding operation. Bernie and his wife Marquita moved closer to the ranch to begin their new working life in retirement. The couple had no specific retirement plans at that point and took a chance. “I had never worked with any animals whatsoever in my lifetime,” says Bernie.

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When Tom passed away six 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 $1,000. There was no longer money in breeding, so Bernie and his family focused on finding good homes for the remaining alpacas.

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 them as pets, with no intention to breed them for profit. “Alpacas are just really nice, neat little animals,” Bernie says. “And our grandkids love them.”

In the meantime, Bernie’s son, Drew, graduated from college and moved north to Ottawa, Canada. He now works as a theme specialist at Shopify. “My son approached me to ask if there was anything we could do with Shopify,” Bernie says. Bernie had been making his own beer at the time (called Alpaca Wiz), but it was illegal in his state to sell home brew. So, Drew suggested alpaca socks. “My sister-in-law had a store at the ranch,” says Bernie. “The alpaca socks always sold really well.”

Stacks of alpaca wool socks
The shorn coats from alpacas provide a wooly fiber that can be made into products like socks and mittens. Maximus & Penelope

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 five minutes in each year of the alpaca’s lives, but it’s a harrowing five minutes nonetheless. 

The result is win-win, though: a cooler summer haircut for the alpacas and super warm fiber for producing goods. “Alpacas don’t like the summers,” says Bernie. “A lot of time they’re in the barn where we have fans blowing on them.” Bernie hoses the alpacas down in the summer to cool their bellies, and they line up like cars at a car wash, he says. “Some of them will just keep circling around to get back in line.”

We started last year on Cyber Monday. Within a day, I’m calling my wife and saying, ‘We need more socks!’

The resulting fiber from the annual shearing is then sent to a fiber 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.

Bernie initially bought $1,000 worth of socks and launched them on a website in time for Cyber Monday 2015. He had low expectations and decided that in the worst case scenario, the socks would make great Christmas gifts for years to come. But, he says, the response overwhelmed him. “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 business 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.

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 business owner, after all. “I really did not have that entrepreneurial bug, if you will,” he says. “It was happenstance. Things just worked out.”

How to start a business after retirement

Bernie Rothrock walks from the mailbox on a snowy lane, followed by two young children
Bernie’s business helps him fund an interest and still spend plenty of time with his grandkids. Maximus & Penelope 

In Bernie’s case, entrepreneurship found him. He started a business as a way to keep himself busy with his newfound idle time. For others, entrepreneurship may be a means to an end. According to one 2019 survey, 64% of Americans will retire with less than $10,000 in savings. The same survey also found that this group is unconcerned—likely as most of them will continue to work after retirement. 

This demographic may also be well suited to entrepreneurship. They have more life experience and possibly more business experience and fewer responsibilities. The risk may be much lower, too: for many in this age bracket, pensions can provide backup, the kids are on their own, and living expenses are typically lower.

Before we tell you how to get started, let’s first talk about why launching a business after retirement might be right for your lifestyle.

5 reasons to pursue entrepreneurship in retirement

If you’ve asked yourself, “Should I start a business after I retire?” the answer depends on your goals, personality, and retirement income needs. There are plenty of benefits to starting a business in retirement, while still finding room for R&R.

1. Stay active

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.

A small business demands both physical exertion (packing orders, trips to the post office) and mental exercise (writing product page copy, planning marketing campaigns). A business run from home also allows for those with limited mobility to set their own level of activity.

2. Pursue a passion

My father retired three years ago after working roughly the same mundane desk job for more than four decades. But actually, he’s secretly a gifted artist. Art is what he would have pursued if, like many people, he hadn’t taken the practical route to provide for his family.

Over the years, my dad tinkered with creative projects in his studio in the evenings. He thrives on tinkering and, since retirement, he’s been doing it full-time. Retirement affords him time to pursue his calling, without the pressure to provide. For Dad, it’s just a hobby right now, but with all of this time on his hands—and a daughter who works at Shopify—he has few barriers to spin it up into a little business. 

3. Supplement your pension or income

Depending on your situation, you may be relying on reduced income after you retire. A small business could provide support for staying on top of bills, paying down debt, or tucking away for a rainy day. 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.

4. Fund 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.

If the goal is not to make money, dig into your interests and hobbies and choose something that brings you joy.

The 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.

5. Stay social

Though loneliness levels among those 50–74 have actually decreased in recent decades due to more social opportunities and access, nearly half of all Americans report feeling lonely always or sometimes. Leaving a job may also mean giving up most of one’s daily social interaction that naturally happens with coworkers. 

Starting a business could replace some of that interaction—with customers, suppliers, postal carriers, and other professionals. There are also plenty of online and IRL communities for small business owners where you can get advice and meet friends with similar interests.

Retirement business ideas

A woman's hands, knitting with grey wool yarn
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An online store is an excellent option for retirees, as it doesn’t necessarily require a ton of mobility and has the flexibility to be run from home. Or, well, an alpaca ranch.

Which business is best after retirement?

The best retirement business ideas start from what you know. If the goal is not necessarily 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. Or, tap into your career experience. Did you work in corporate interior design? Sell consultations for smaller residential projects. 

Here are some other great business ideas for retirees to consider:

  • Services. Sell services like landscaping or pet sitting—activities that can keep you physically active and social—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 money with minimal effort—especially if mobility is a concern.
  • Handcrafted goods. Take the church bazaar to the next level. What are you already doing in your spare time? Things to make and sell can be anything from wooden dollhouses to prize-winning pies to crocheted blankets.
  • Courses. 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 and minimal effort in the long run.

📚 Read More: Find a Product to Sell: 12 Strategies for Finding Your First Profitable Product

✨ Get inspired: Life Lessons from 9 Inspiring Entrepreneurs Over 50

4 questions to ask before starting your retirement business

Once you have an idea, I don’t have to tell you that the best way to get started is to just start. You can begin a free trial on Shopify and play with your new store before you go live. If the prospect of building a website is overwhelming, start with free resources to guide you through the process. Next, ask yourself a few important questions:

1. How will you finance your new business?

What if we told you that you can start a business with a $0 budget? It’s possible. If the point of starting your business is staying active or social, there’s no need to invest a lot up front anyway. I wouldn’t necessarily advise downsizing your living situation to fund your project. There are a few avenues to pursue if your project requires startup capital.

💡Tips:

  • 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, and start with a little inventory. Bernie made a $1,000 investment and started with one product. “We thought, We'll just start out with socks and judge interests there,” he says.
  • Keep it lean. Forget hiring a designer or developer for now—use a free Shopify theme, create simple designs with a tool like Canva, use a logo generator, and DIY your product photos using your smartphone.
  • Borrow against retirement savings. In the US, 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 your age bracket.
  • Get advice. Before starting any business, talk with your financial adviser, or tap into free small business advice resources.

2. Can you play to your strengths (and learn the rest)?

A young woman helps an older man with an iPad
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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. With a little help from his son, he learned the mechanics of building and maintaining a website.

It’s never too late to learn something new. In many cities, public libraries, government-run facilities, and community groups offer free courses for seniors like basic computer skills and web design. Check listings in your area for programs catering to retirees or older folks.

3. Do you have an exit strategy?

You may retire with tons of energy and the ability to run a business on your own, but what will happen if you no longer can? What’s your plan if health issues prevent you from continuing to manage the business? Have you had discussions with your family about your wishes? 

We don’t want to get stuck in a place where we have 26 alpacas that we can’t manage.

Bernie says he watched many like him enter the alpaca business at an older age. “You’re just one health issue away from no longer being able to care for your herd,” he says. That’s why he’s keeping the business small. “We don't want to get stuck in a place where we have 26 alpacas that we can’t manage.”

4. What about a family business?

Consider starting a business that brings your family together and builds a legacy for future generations to carry on in your name. Bernie and Drew might live in different countries, but Maximus & Penelope has been the catalyst for keeping them connected regularly. Bernie’s wife has even joined the team, and between caring for her grandkids, she’s managing the store’s social accounts.

Drew tells me that although his dad may have needed a little nudging, he is now running the store on his own. And, Bernie says that managing the Shopify store is the easiest part of his day.

For the kids and grandkids: If your parent or grandparent is retiring, you can help them build a new life. What can you work on together? What technical skills can you bring to the table? How can you learn from each other? Use entrepreneurship as a way to stay connected.

Start your free trial and build a retirement business on Shopify