Looking for extra cash to keep your household afloat in this storm-tossed economy? Maybe it's time to turn your hobby into a business.
Whether you wade in part-time or dive in full-time, there are several advantages to launching your hobby as a business. For starters, you already enjoy it. You also have the knowledge base and skill set upon which to build, and may have a network of fellow enthusiasts to help get you started.
It's likely that you also have a sense for pricing and market dynamics surrounding your hobby.
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Finding the time and space to create a new business can be challenging, especially if you're working another job as well. But with a few simple marketing moves and the help of a willing mentor or two, you can turn your pastime into cash time in no time.
"Your hobby has to translate into a product or service for which there is an identifiable market," says Barbara Brabec, author of "Handmade for Profit" and a 25-year veteran of the arts and crafts world. "You may love the product you make, but the bottom line is, will anyone actually buy it?"
Brabec says the biggest fear for most hobbyists is ... well, fear itself.
"Everybody is scared because they're stepping outside their comfort zone. The only way you can get past this is with some experience and doing it more than once," she says. "You have to be able to take some rejection. It's not rejection against you personally; it's the product or service you're offering. It's not you that's being judged."
Ready to take the plunge? Here are six lucrative hobbies you can start from home today.
• Skills: baking, cake decorating, on-site catering.
• Market: retail, special events, office parties.
• Opportunities for growth: custom wedding cakes (growing and lucrative market).
A few years ago, 27-year-old Katie Schwarz, a special education teacher in Austin, Texas, took a cake-decorating class and fell in love with it. Soon, she was decorating cakes and treats for children's birthday parties.
In 2007, inspired by the trendy treat of choice in New York City, she started Let Them Eat Cupcakes, a Web and phone-order home business.
Let Them Eat Cupcakes specializes in custom-decorated cupcakes in more than a dozen flavors, including margarita and s'mores. The cupcakes are delivered directly to the customers' doors.
Schwarz charges $1.25 for plain and $1.50 for theme-decorated cupcakes. There is a six-cake minimum and a $5 delivery charge. Her typical order is two dozen to five dozen.
"It was hard at first to figure out how to make a profit, especially because I offer delivery with my cupcakes," she says. "It was hard to figure out how to charge for that with gas prices increasing."
Schwarz, who still teaches every other day, estimates she spends 10 hours baking and delivering to three or four events a week. So far, her marketing consists of word of mouth and her Web site.
"I would say the money is not significant yet, but I haven't had to advertise at all yet," she says. "I just have a Web site. I'm looking at advertising because I hope to eventually expand and have a storefront."
• Skills: organization, work flow, creative problem solving.
• Market: home businesses, busy executives, harried stay-at-home moms.
• Opportunities for growth: business consulting, virtual assistant.
Seven years ago, M. Colleen Klimczak was a Chicago-area health care recruiter when she stumbled upon the National Association of Professional Organizers, or NAPO, Web site.
"I was looking for an organizer to help with a giant garage sale," says the mother of three. "When I found that Web site, I said, 'I don't want to hire one, I want to be one.'"
Through NAPO, Klimczak found a mentor who helped her set a fee. She charges $50 per hour, average for her suburban Chicago location, although she admits professional organizers command three times that in San Francisco. She recently earned the "Certified Professional Organizer" designation and may raise her fee slightly.
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Set-up costs were minimal.
"Out the door, if you have a computer and the know-how, it's not hard to just start up," she says.
She deals mostly with residential and home offices. To supplement her professional organizer business, she also works as a virtual assistant and occasional project manager. Her events-planning background and sense for organization and work flow serve her well.
Do you have to be organized to become a professional organizer?
"Yes, but it doesn't work the other way though -- just because you're an organized person does not mean you can be a professional organizer," she explains. "I can be as organized as I want, but I can't impose what works in my house onto somebody else's house. Just because my closets are really, really tidy doesn't mean I can do this as a business and translate that to other people. It doesn't work that way."
Klimczak says she stresses education, a bit of a double-edged sword because once her clients are organized, she knows she'll lose them. Still, there are plenty more where they came from.
"I have a client who says she would rather pay me than a therapist because at least her house looks better when I leave," she says.
Arts and Crafts
• Skills: ability to produce a saleable art or craft product.
• Market: retail or wholesale, the sky's the limit.
• Opportunities for growth: license product for mass market production, media spinoffs (cartoons, etc.).
Brabec has sold nearly a half-million books that help fellow crafters turn homemade items into cash.
She's also seen the same mistakes over and over -- such as the little old seamstress who made pudgy-faced soft dolls but failed to patent her creation and hence didn't receive a dime when Cabbage Patch Kids exploded.
"The concepts are the same, whether you're selling quilting or stitchery or woodwork or steel sculpture or jewelry," she says. "Arts and crafts is a multi-billion-dollar industry all by itself."
How can you get your share of that?
Start with a computer. Even a technology holdout like Brabec admits you won't get anywhere today without one.
Computers are essential, not only to do the necessary market research, but also to sell your products beyond your city limits, she says. Although you'll probably begin at local craft shows and farmer's markets, your ultimate market may be half a state or even half a world away.
Next, test market your product any way you can.
"One woman who makes jewelry said, 'I just wear my new pieces and if a stranger stops me on the street and says 'I love your pin,' I know I've got a winner,'" she says. "But don't try that with your strawberry preserves!"
Many crafters make the mistake of not charging enough, Brabec says.
"Build in elements for profit and overhead because if you really take off, if you've set your prices too low and then find you have to hire help, there's not enough profit in your pricing structure to pay for an employee," she says. "It's a lot easier to lower prices than to raise them."
Brabec maintains that the ongoing flood of imports only means a brighter future for homemade arts and crafts.
"People want the quality and beauty of real handmade products," Brabec says. "They understand that there is a part of that artist within each piece, so they're buying more than just a product. There's always going to be a market for handmade products."
• Skills: knowledge of care, feeding and breeding of exotic birds.
• Market: wholesale to pet stores, retail to breeders and the public.
• Opportunities for growth: depend on whether pet store consolidation hampers growth locally.
Kathy Short has always had a thing for birds.
"I've had birds all my life," she says. "One leads to two leads to 10, and at some point you start wondering if you can do something with it."
She's not wondering anymore. As the owner of Exotics of the World, Short hand-raises between 250 and 400 cockatiels, parrots and other exotic birds annually at her home aviary in Woodinville, Wash. She then sells them wholesale to pet stores and collectors of show birds.
Short made the leap from infant day care to raising birds after her husband gave her an umbrella cockatoo. She started in her garage but quickly outgrew it. She now has 250 birds in aviary outbuildings but keeps the hatchlings inside her home.
"Birds are extremely messy," she warns.
Startup expenses for an exotic bird business can be steep: a pair of Moluccan cockatoos can run you $2,000, African gray parrots cost $1,200 to $2,000 a pair and individual cockatiels will set you back $500 apiece. Short owns 200 cockatiels, but only breeds 22 pairs at a time.
In addition to the cost of cages and food, exotic birds come with a range of exotic ailments. Securing the services of a good aviary veterinarian is as critical as it is costly; vaccinating five baby parrots against avian polyoma can run $155.
But pedigreed exotic birds also fetch a handsome price, even wholesale. Short says she'll sell a single baby Moluccan cockatoo to a pet store for $1,000, which in turn will sell it to the public for between $2,000 and $2,400.
In fact, Short says her biggest business obstacle is the declining number of independent pet stores that serve as her customer base. Building a stable list of wholesale clients and breeding birds that sell are keys to success in the bird world.
She advises against buying your breeding stock over the Internet.
"People don't tell the truth when you buy birds off the Internet; they're usually selling them for a reason," says Short. "Over the years, I've found it's almost better to start with individual birds and pair them yourself instead of buying what they call 'proven pairs.'"
• Skills: shopping for men, women, children and pets.
• Market: busy professionals, the elderly, disabled or fashion-challenged.
• Opportunities for growth: Ellen Macklin doesn't even advertise. Need we say more?
Twenty-five years ago on a whim, Ellen Macklin bought a computer and a handful of business cards and became one of Boston's most successful personal shoppers.
A former art teacher, Macklin had what it takes to make it in her new field: infallible taste, an outgoing personality, a love of shopping and a fiercely independent spirit.
She was one of four personal shoppers listed in the phone book then. The other three weren't in business long.
In recent years, the personal shopping field has expanded greatly, or so the get-rich-quick scam artists would have us believe. Macklin receives a flood of resumes sent her way by innocent wannabes who've been led on -- for a fee, of course -- by phony placement specialists.
Macklin's business thrives because she delivers. She's proud to say she's never returned a purchase.
"I've done many, many different things, but something that has always been a constant is wardrobe consulting," she says. "I have certain clients who keep coming back to me season after season and year after year. It used to be women who were executives who were pregnant two or three times and just wanted to throw everything away and start over again, but now it might be a bunch of outfits for a trip or a wedding trousseau.
"One just never knows. Every job is different; that's what so wonderful about it."
Macklin charges a flat fee of $45 an hour, door to door. She hasn't changed her fee in years, nor does she advertise or even have a Web site. People find her through word of mouth or her occasional lecture appearances.
Her clients are evenly split between men and women. She has purchased everything from cars to Picassos. She knows some of her clients so well that she'll even pick up items for them on pleasure trips to New York or Connecticut.
She won't take kickbacks from any store. And although she was a mystery shopper for years, she won't work for a single store because she doesn't want them limiting her shopping options.
"If you want to put an outfit together and really do a great job, you might have to go to three or four different stores," she explains. "And I like to do it from head to toe, because to wear a pair of 1970s shoes with a 2008 outfit is so -- ecch!"
So, what is the worst thing about being a personal shopper?
"It's unpredictable," Macklin says. "You can't expect a steady income. You can't say Christmastime will be your busiest time; sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't."
The best part is a no-brainer, she says.
"It feels good," Macklin says. "You're doing something good for people."
• Skills: basic gardening, some market research.
• Market: retail to home gardeners, landscapers (locally to worldwide).
• Opportunities for growth: develop and patent your own hybrids for optimal return on investment.
Got a green thumb? You might want to sow a money crop like day lilies into your garden this spring.
"Most people who sell day lilies get started as a hobby," says Kathy Lamb, owner of Loon Song Gardens in Champlin, Minn. "When you grow day lilies, you become very passionate about them and love to select different varieties. You do this for a few years and fill up your gardens and at some point you make the decision that you must dig these up, divide them and get rid of some of them. That's when some people start selling their day lilies."
Day lilies are wonderfully whimsical flowering plants. They are neither true lilies nor bulbs. You harvest them by splitting the part below ground, called a crown, into two or more new plants, called "divisions" or "fans."
Here's where it gets economically interesting: U.S.-grown, field-harvested day lilies are more expensive than their imported counterparts. However, U.S. lilies bloom in one to two years and sell better than the tissue-cultured day lily imports available at your local discount stores, which often take three times as long to bloom.
Lamb says common varieties like Stella de Oro sell from $3 to $5 a double fan, while new introductions can retail for $300 to $500 for a single fan. Some even sell at auction for up to several thousand dollars.
Because all day lilies from a new hybrid (there are some 60,000 registered with the American Hemerocallis Society, or AHS) start as divisions from the original plant, their price can remain in the $100 to $150 price range for 10 years until supply catches up to demand.
The best way to break into the business is through a local day lily club; you can find a listing of these as well as valuable regional symposiums on the AHS Web site. Day lily growers like Lamb prefer to ship them bare-root, wrapped in paper or sawdust.
With a sturdy Web site and a few in-demand varieties, you can harvest cash from your day lily garden in no time. If you ship out of state, however, be sure to check with your state department of agriculture to see if a nursery license or certificate is required.
Lamb says the wholesale market is probably unrealistic for most hobbyists.
"That would require a really sizable production area," she says. "You would be selling to other nurseries and they would want quantities in the thousands. You would need to have some field space to be a wholesaler."
Jay MacDonald is a contributing editor based in Texas.