When Boomer Fantasies Go Bust
It sounds so romantic: follow your passion, start a small business. But for some midlifers, the dream turns into a nightmare
It would be a field of dreams.
That’s what Kathy and Martin Cohn envisioned when a landscaper they met at a local lavender festival in 2004 described the bucolic, fragrant future they could enjoy as lavender farmers in Sonoma, Calif. The Cohns, retired advertising professionals from San Francisco, had pondered numerous ways to harness the prickly, wildflower-overrun land surrounding their second home, but nothing had captured their imagination.
Unfortunately, the Cohns’ dream of being small-scale farmers in elegant Sonoma County was as overrun with costs and mishaps as their expensive lavender landscape was with weeds. It was, Kathy Cohn recalls with wry laughter, a field of nightmares.
“We planted 2,000 plants, we built a road,” she says. After a slim harvest in the first year, the Cohns’ plants yielded a crop big enough for Kathy to offer dried lavender to local purveyors. The problem? No one wanted it.
“The flower market told me they bought their dried lavender from France and Australia,” she says, where it is cheaper to produce. Finding herself “stuck with all this dried lavender,” she tried her hand at floral arrangements. It was a disaster.
“I don’t have the knack,” she says. “They were so ugly! Friends asked me to do arrangements for them, but they just hated them.” Cohn went down many lavender-lined paths, from sachets to herbal waters, but all of them dead-ended.
Then the weeds came. And the irrigation failed. And a wet winter killed her crop. And a downsized field was planted with the wrong variety — twice.
“That landscaper at the lavender festival was a snake-oil salesman,” Cohn says. “We were both in advertising. We shouldn’t have been taken in like that.”
But that’s the blinding quality of a dream, and many boomers who ditch their day jobs to pursue their passions have found themselves on the rocks of reality.
Does Your Passion Have a Market?
“Most people do not take the time to test their ideas in the real world,” says Pamela Slim, author of Escape From Cubicle Nation: From Corporate Prisoner to Thriving Entrepreneur. “They also don't save enough money or generate enough alternative ways of making a living while their business ramps up slowly. People also mistake passion for market viability and are shocked if everyone is not as excited about their idea as they are.”
Slim, who escaped her own cubicle 16 years ago to be a consultant to aspiring entrepreneurs, says the hard work required to run one’s own venture often takes dreamers by surprise. “The dream of little responsibility and lots of freedom is compelling to many,” Slim says. “In reality, most people are not thrilled with the amount of time it takes to ‘make money while they sleep.’”
Smiling When You Want to Scream
Paula Murphy left her career as a horticulturist and designer to “follow her heart,” as she says, and open her own bed and breakfast with her husband, Brian, on Massachusetts’ Cape Cod. “After five years of creating and running the business and keeping it on top in a very competitive marketplace,” she says, “I burned out from the 24/7 routine, the perpetual smile and always being ‘on’ and never being able to relax in my own home.”
In a sense, Murphy was defeated by her own success. “We had many repeat and referral guests from around the world,” she says. “We were full all season long. But at the end of the day, after socializing and wearing every hat that a small business owner wears in addition to concierge, chef, maintenance, landscaping, accounting, customer service, shopper, marketing, laundry, etc., there was nothing left for yourself, your spouse, friends, etc. Imagine having over 1,500 houseguests a year. The sacrifice was too great.”
The morning her husband drove himself to the emergency room with an allergic reaction because he didn’t want to bother his exhausted wife, she realized the cost her dream had exacted.
“I wasn’t there for him,” she says. “I was there for everyone else, but not the most important person in my life, my life partner. What good is it being a top-rated innkeeper in the world, if you feel like the worst wife in the world?”
Murphy and her husband sold their B&B last year and now she's an industry consultant in her new venture, Hospitality Hotlines. “Ah yes, the heart of a child still exists in ‘B&B wannabes,’” she says. “My purpose would never be to discourage someone from their dream but to enlighten them to increase their success and career longevity.”
Murphy tells her starry-eyed clients to work for a B&B or an inn for three years before making the jump. Pamela Slim agrees that road-testing the dream with what she calls “a side hustle” is a smart strategy. “It allows you to test your ideas, build your business infrastructure and spread out the investment of starting up your business over an extended period of time,” Slim says. “I don't believe in any business idea until I have seen it successfully executed in the real world."
The Call of the Online Marketplace
Eleanor Mayrhofer could not agree more with that advice. Mayrhofer represents the latest iteration of the dream career — she’s a letterpress artist who sells her wares via Etsy, the online marketplace. The beauty and ease of the Etsy interface is as much a siren call as those lavender fields or that cheery bed and breakfast. The site even features a series of essays by its members called “Quit Your Day Job.”
“Etsy is wonderful for getting started,” Mayrhofer says. “You can literally have a store up and running in a matter of minutes.” But nothing can really prepare you for the learning curve when it comes to running an online business, she says. “Be prepared to work a lot harder for less money, if you had a full-time job before making the leap,” she says. “You have to wear every business hat there is: creative director, production manager, customer service rep, accountant, marketer, publicist and, on really bad days, IT support.”
Mayrhofer, like Paula Murphy, feels the challenge of her own success. She’s nearly burned out from ramping up her business of hand-pressed paper goods. But while dreams may harden and hone with reality, she keeps an eye on her many rewards. “When you know that you can build some sort of livelihood from scratch, it's a really gratifying feeling,” she says.
For Kathy Cohn, who took the wise counsel of a local organic guru and added some trees and other plants to her Sonoma fields, there was still much to be gained from her travails. "Martin and I have a new respect for farmers," she says. Kathy confesses that she may plant more of the flowering shrub again this spring. “I do enjoy the lavender,” she says. “It has such a beautiful smell. When you pick, you’re out there really early in the morning. The sun is coming up over the hill and you're in nature, using the land to grow something beautiful.”
Some dreams just refuse to die.