More Sonoma County seniors launch their own businesses

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In popular culture, the notion of the young entrepreneur changing the world is a constant theme.

The images of the young Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg all have been fixed into our consciousness. They had the perfect combination of moxie and gumption to bring their ideas to massive worldwide acceptance.

That story also can be applied locally with such examples ranging from Adam and Dianna Lee in their late 20s starting pinot noir specialist Siduri Wines, which later was acquired by Jackson Family Wines of Santa Rosa. In their 30s, Sean and Rebecca Lovett started Revive Kombucha at the Santa Rosa farmers market — its first stop toward becoming a nationwide staple in that fast-growing specialty drink category.

But the reality is much more gray — literally — as more local seniors are showing their entrepreneurial side in Sonoma County. This growing trend is spurred by factors such as a longer lifespan; the necessity for some to generate income later in life; and legislative changes that have made it easier to start a brand.

“There’s an upsurge in the (55 and over) population,” said Mary Cervantes, business services director of the Napa- Sonoma Small Business Development Center. The center holds periodic workshops on how to start your own business.

Exhibit A in this category would be Leslie Goodrich of LaLa’s Jam Bar and Urban Farmstand in Petaluma.

Goodrich started her business at 69 in 2014, after years of volunteer work, which came after a long career of selling residential real estate in Marin County. She specializes in producing about 50 jams and jellies, ranging from pineapple quince to apple butter to a Sriracha-flavored pear sauce. She sources mostly local fruit treated without pesticides.

While she has other hobbies such as being a master gardener, Goodrich found her passion always has been in sales. As a youth, she was the girl who would go around the neighborhood to knock on doors to sell cookies.

“Volunteering is nice, but I love to make money,” she said. “I always liked to work hard and I always liked to sell something.”

Her business was boosted by passage of a 2012 California law that allowed entrepreneurs to set up “cottage food operations” in their homes to try their ideas without having to go the costly route by renting commercial kitchen space.

That allowed her to test out recipes on a small scale and reach out to stores that were receptive, which was key given she had no retail experience. For instance, she soon found out farmers markets weren’t as lucrative as she had thought.

“I had a lot of people who helped me along the way. I made a lot of mistakes,” she said. “It was an assembly line in my dining room.”

Eventually, she reached a point where she wanted her house back and decided to buy a small building on East Washington Street near the Sonoma- Marin Fairgrounds. She estimated she has put about $100,000 into her business besides the mortgage on space she bought last year. The new location is where she makes and sells her products, along with homemade wares from other local entrepreneurs.

“If I am going to do this, I’m going to sell local products,” said Goodrich, who has four part-time employees. She added that homemade items were a key to her success to stand out in a crowded retail sector.

Goodrich is not alone and represents a trend given an aging population in the United States, which is another factor since people are living longer. The average lifespan for men is 78.6 years and for women it’s 80.

“The opportunities for senior entrepreneurship are unprecedented,” said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported this month that all Baby Boomers will be age 65 by 2030, which will mean one out of five Americans will be at the traditional retirement age and older.

Despite many anecdotes, there is a dearth of academic research on the number of senior entrepreneurs nationwide, said David Deeds, a professor of entrepreneurship at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.

However, a paper published in April for the National Bureau of Economic Research found successful entrepreneurs are middle-aged — not younger people — and the median age for founders of the fastest-growing new ventures was 45.

While many are driven by a passion project, Deeds said others view it as an avenue to become more secure financially.

“We’re seeing people in this entire generation (of baby boomers) that are not ready for retirement financially. They are looking for a way to build wealth,” he said.

Suzanne Guenza, 54, went that route when she opened her Petaluma Toffee Co. business about two years ago. A mother of two adult sons, Guenza worked in the mortgage/real estate business and in an oral surgeon’s office. She saved up three months of vacation time to pursue her venture, which was a passion she had since childhood. The money all came from her savings.

“If I can’t be in the black in three months, then I can’t make it,” Guenza said of her business plans. Like Goodrich, she used a cottage-food license to make her toffee at home.

Guenza tested her candy with family and friends as she reached out to local retailers. Lagunitas Brewing Co. said she would need to put its beers in her product to sell her toffee, so she came up with recipes using its Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ ale and Cappuccino Stout in her candies. Her toffee is now in 22 locations around the area.

The gambit has paid off because she’s making more money than she did working for the oral surgeon. Her focus now has turned to the future. The state law allows owners of cottage industries to hire up to one nonfamily member to work in the business, which she may avail herself given the demand during the holiday season. Guenza also is looking at a $10,000 machine that would allow her to make four batches of candy at once to speed up productivity.

She plans to grow the business in “baby steps,” though, she said. “I would love to see this go on until I’m 80.”

Sonoma County is known for its thriving wine, beer and food sectors, so many of the entrepreneurs are in those fields. But not all. For example, Judy Cooper of Petaluma started her business, BeeTween Friends, after she retired from the state Public Utilities Commission in 2010 at 55. She specializes in making rag dolls priced from $30 to $45 per item.

One key piece of entrepreneurial advice from Cooper: think about what type of business you would like to do before you retire to make the transition work smoothly.

“I felt that if I didn’t make a decision now (when working), I wouldn’t make one after I retired,” said Cooper, who works out of her home and sells most of her products at regional craft shows.

Like Goodrich and Guenza, Cooper hasn’t much embraced online sales despite being a valuable sales channel. But she may set up an account on Etsy, the arts-and-crafts e-commerce site, because it allows makers to work at their own production pace as opposed to constantly resupplying stock.

A major change within the last decade has been the greater acceptance of those starting their own business for their second, third or even fourth career. When he started his Sonoma Brinery in 2004 to make pickle and sauerkraut products, former Telecom Valley entrepreneur David Ehreth said he knew some of his former colleagues were skeptical.

“With a lot of my contemporaries, I first got that sympathetic look like when you see someone who must be off his rocker,” the 69-year-old Ehreth said.

They aren’t laughing now. His kosher, salt-cured pickles reminiscent of those from a New York delicatessen have been a hit. His parent company, Alexander Valley Gourmet in Healdsburg, now employs more than 25 people and his products are in 2,000 stores. He invested about $750,000 of his own money to ramp up the business, but has brought on three partners in recent years to lessen his workload.

Ehreth said he has no immediate plans to retire given how much he enjoys the pickle business.

Goodrich also has no plans to retire soon. In fact, she plans to work through at least until 80 and then figure out something else to do.

“We aren’t here to change the world. We are here to contribute to expanding the palette to good living,” Ehreth said of his business. “A pickle is a contributor to a better quality of life.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or

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