How One Couple Runs a Business in Retirement

After stepping away from their careers, an Ohio husband and wife started two websites that, like their marriage, are thriving

By Nancy Collamer
Originally Posted On May 29, 2013

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Nancy Collamer, M.S., is a career coach, speaker and author of Second-Act Careers: 50+ Ways to Profit From Your Passions During Semi-Retirement. Her website is MyLifestyleCareer.com; on Twitter she is @NancyCollamer.

Courtesy of Bob and Jo Ann Shirilla
Have you ever considered the possibility of running a business with your spouse during retirement? Would you dare?
 
Working alongside your partner is clearly not for everyone. After all, many couples have a hard enough time agreeing about the basics for their retirement, like where to live and when to retire.
 
Semi-Retirement Work, Travel and Fun

But as Jo Ann and Bob Shirilla of Poland, Ohio, discovered, sometimes working together can provide a surprisingly enjoyable way to earn an income, travel and have fun experiencing a period of semi-retirement before settling into full-on retirement.

For most of their 39 years as a married couple, the Shirillas pursued two very separate career paths. Bob, 64, worked for 30 years in the information technology field and Jo Ann, 62, ran and operated a retail gift shop, which gave her the flexibility to care for their two daughters, Amanda, now 33, and Angela, 32.
 
But when Jo Ann decided to close her store in 2000 at the same time Bob was ready to retire from his full-time corporate work, their professional paths intersected.
 
Jo Ann needed to get rid of her store’s excess inventory of throw blankets and other gift items and Bob had the tech know-how to help her do it effectively, so the couple put up an e-commerce website, Keepsakes ?Etc. The site ultimately evolved into a place to buy personalized gifts online. “I was neither financially nor emotionally ready to fully retire,” Bob recalls, “and after our daughters graduated from college, I felt we could take a financial risk.”
 
Setting Up a Second Website

Six years after launching Keepsakes Etc., the Shirillas decided to expand their digital footprint (and maximize their warehouse capabilities) by adding a second e-commerce site, Simply Bags, which sells fashionable totes, backpacks, duffles and other types of bags for women, men and kids.
 
Work hours for Jo Ann and Bob vary; in busy seasons, they can spend 40 hours a week or more on it. The key, for them, is the flexibility the business offers.
 
Both sites feature personalized products and unusual gifts that the big retailers don’t sell. For example, one of the most popular items on Keepsakes is a sympathy throw blanket that can be given as a condolence gift or personalized as a memorial tribute.
 
Learning From Each Other

Jo Ann and Bob brought complementary, valuable strengths to the business: She’s in charge of merchandising and runs? the day-to-day operations at their warehouse in Canfield, Ohio. He focuses on business processes, technical issues and? Internet marketing. “Opposite skill sets are good to have,” Jo Ann says. “I learn from him and he learns from me.”
 
One secret to their ability to work as a team without getting on each other’s nerves: They generally do their jobs in different locations. On most days, Jo Ann goes to the warehouse, overseeing a small group of employees, while Bob works from home. An unexpected benefit of this arrangement is that Bob has learned how to cook, an activity he has come to enjoy.
 
The couple travels together on buying trips around the country. “Owning our own business has provided the flexibility for us to travel and play? when we want to,” Bob says.
 
Keeping Current With Online Trends

Competing successfully as a mom-and-pop (literally) operation online has required resilience, creativity and skill-tweaking.
 
Bob spends several hours each week keeping his online marketing expertise up to date and ensuring that the site can be easily found on search engines, like Google. “People think you can slap a website up there and it will run automatically, but that is not the case,” he says. “We are constantly reassessing what we do and how we do it.”
 
How They Beat the Big Guys

One way they’ve been able to gain an edge on their larger competitors is by offering exceptional customer service.
 
“If you call our warehouse between 9 and 5, you get a person answering the phone,” Bob says. “We ship the customer’s blanket the same day it’s ordered, enclose it in a gift bag and write a personalized card. Nothing goes out unless it is perfect.”
 
A Retirement That's Not for Everybody

At an age when many people prefer to downshift, the Shirillas thrive on running their business in semi-retirement. But they admit that becoming entrepreneurs in your 50s or 60s isn’t for everyone.
 
“This is not a game. You can lose everything if you’re not careful,” Bob says. Still, he adds, “my only regret is that I wish we would have done this earlier.”