Having a hobby is a great way to relax, exercise your creativity and have fun. The hours you’ve invested in your favorite pastime bring rewards in so many ways—why not make them financially rewarding, too?
When the coronavirus pandemic reached the U.S., educators across the nation responded to the crisis by turning their talents toward helping others. Teachers with sewing skills stitched fabric face coverings. Those who owned or had access to school 3D printers made plastic protective face shields; some crafted covers for N95 respirator masks.
As the virus lingers, educators are adapting to the “new normal” of distance learning, working from home, meetings and conferences via video chat and using their hobby-businesses for “Distance Earning.”
Here’s how several home business owners are making it work. Already have a hobby and itching to start distance earning? Skip right to the tips.
What’s your hobby?
Lauren Tingley, a first grade teacher in Red Bluff, California, has been working in education for more than 16 years. When she transitioned to classroom teaching four years ago, she took a significant pay cut.
“In the private sector, your pay is often determined by your accomplishments and demonstrated level of expertise, but for teachers, your salary is locked in by the pay scale,” Tingley explains.
Tingley loved teaching but wanted to have some control over her income so she started Simply-Well-Balanced.com, a blog about making life easier for busy moms. “This has been really helpful during the pandemic since moms are faced with additional responsibilities at home, from working remotely to homeschooling their children,” Tingley says.
On her blog, Tingley shares ideas and resources to make all aspects of motherhood easier, from housekeeping to easy educational activities for kids. “I earn income through advertising on my site as well as affiliate sales of products that I use and love,” she says. When her readers buy those products or products she lists on her Amazon Influencer shop, she receives a small commission. Tingley also sells an online course on how to declutter your home and credits her teaching background combined with her blogging hobby for making that extra income source possible.
“I love to teach children about art, how to create art, and watch them grow into artists,” says Ruth Post, an elementary school art teacher in metropolitan Detroit, Michigan, for 30 years. When Post retired, she and her husband, also an art teacher and potter, moved to Sedona, Arizona.
“We started looking for avenues to share our love for ceramics with others,” Post says. She and her husband both began teaching at the Sedona Art Center and, in addition to substitute teaching pre-K through 12th grade in the Scottsdale school system, Post started The Clay Box, a clay kit subscription box business.
The kits include a step-by-step guidebook and everything two children need to create a clay sculpture. “Each guidebook contains an art lesson using a variety of clays and art techniques,” Post explains,” and “each month a different themed box will arrive by mail with a new clay project.”
Post sells her clay art boxes online in her Etsy shop, through Cratejoy and also sells Arizona-themed clay kits at many local gift shops. Post’s blog, Little Budding Artist, supports the kit business.
“My subscription box business has grown ever since parents have been homeschooling their children due to the COVID-19 Shelter-In-Place order,” Post notes. “Parents have found my art kits to be a perfect fit for their homeschooler's art lesson time.”
Post and her husband were NEA members when they taught full time. She is offering a discount to current members: Use code NEAMB for 15% off your first box.
For most of Rhoda Toynbee’s 13-plus years of teaching in Darby, Montana, her classroom time has been spent working with elementary grades, including her current combined 3rd and 4th grade classes. Toynbee has also taught high school art and yearbook design.
“My hobby is graphic design,” Toynbee says. “I turned that into an income [source] by selling lesson plans, worksheets, center activities and test prep materials” on Teachers Pay Teachers. On her Rhoda Design Studio site, Toynbee also shares resources such as distance learning lessons, which are especially useful now, while social distancing rules are in effect. And Toynbee created an online course that walks teachers through the steps they need to follow to set up their own Teachers Pay Teachers shops and start selling. She’s been selling online for almost four years now and says the income she earns from her online sales has matched her teaching salary.
Albert Wright, a former inner-city teacher working with at-risk kids, wanted to start a hobby that he and his wife, Brooke, could do together. “My wife has a design background and I am extremely good at working with my hands, so we figured jewelry was the way to go,” he says. “We started making teacher necklaces and giving them away to all of my teacher friends.”
In his free time, he turned their hobby into a business after his teacher friends “fell in love” with the necklaces and wanted to buy them for Christmas presents, Wright says. They took their time to choose the right name for their product, knowing it would be their brand. They used “Hymn” because “my wife knew she wanted to eventually make necklaces with Hymn and Scripture on them,” he explains, and “Drop” because their creations “hang like little drops on a chain.”
Since Hymn Drop Shoppe was launched on Etsy in September 2013, the company “has grown into an amazing, income-generating business” that Wright says “has allowed my wife to quit her full-time job in corporate America and work from home” while he works part-time as a certified Master Trainer with Communities in Schools.
“I’ve always loved paper,” graphic design and photography, says Black River Falls, Wisconsin, high school English and media teacher Julie Tieden. Today her hobby has become a successful Etsy store that is “in the top 20 sellers in the Paper Goods category,” she says. Having this spare-time business gives Tieden her own outlet and allows her to continue her growth as a designer “while balancing an extremely busy teaching and advising load,” she says.
Start small, Wright advises. Buy only what you can afford. For example, he started Hymn Drop Shoppe with $100 in supplies and a card table.
Invest profits. “Always invest a portion of the money from your sales back into the business,” says Wright.
Find your niche and “stay in your lane,” Wright says. If you try something outside your niche, make sure you’re doing it a way that fits your abilities and your business. For example, the Wrights considered adding essential oil diffusing jewelry to their product line in response to customer demand, but they didn’t have the knowledge to do it themselves so “we didn’t push ourselves into something that we didn’t feel comfortable with,” Wright says. Instead of overextending themselves, they found a large, established company that already specialized in diffusing jewelry and asked if they’d like to collaborate on designs. It was a win-win for both businesses. “They loved our Hymn Drops” and the collaboration products sold “incredibly well on their website.”
Don’t overload. No matter how fun and exciting your hobby-business may be, you still need time and energy for your day job, home, family and life. “Don’t let your hobby drag you down,” says Chelly Wood, an English teacher in Wendell, Idaho, whose hobby is designing and sewing doll clothing. Schedule your time so you can still take care of the everyday necessities you need to do while your spare-time business grows. Wood uses a color coded system to make sure her calendar includes days for teaching tasks such as grading papers and days and times to spend on marketing, advertising, creating, and practicing her hobby.
Meet a need. “We wanted to make something for teachers, something that parents could buy for Christmas and Teacher Appreciation gifts” that would be more personal than a gift card, says Wright. They started with teacher jewelry gifts, then added other lines to meet other friends’ needs, such as Foster/Adoption, Mom & Grandma and military gift jewelry.
See what’s popular. When the hashtag #FlattenTheCurve was trending, Wood says, “I created a free printable mask pattern that fits Wellie Wisher dolls so children can make a mask for their dolly playmates.” She added a video on her YouTube Channel, ChellyWood1, to show crafters how to make a “dolly-and-me” pair of masks for a toddler or preschool-aged child and doll.
Scout the competition to see what others are doing, Wood suggests. How are they photographing and marketing their products? How do they sell and ship products? How easy is their site to navigate?
Market yourself. “People can’t buy from you if they don’t know what you do in your spare time,” says Wright. Telling them helps but for even more effective marketing, “don’t just talk about your product—give the story behind it.”
Take advantage of platforms such as Animoto for creating video tutorials and advertising your product, Wood says. She uses it to create videos for her hobby-business as well as for teaching tutorials like “What is a thesis statement and how do I write one?”
Use social media to promote your project. Join groups online and participate in discussions, suggests Wood. She is on sites such as Twitter and Pinterest and says “Facebook is a great place to find people who share your hobby and/or business goals.” They’ll help you promote your business when they hit the “like” button, even if your project is similar to their own.
An expert’s tips for getting started
“When you’re just starting out, it can be really tricky to get your handmade item out there in a way that is visible and leads to sales,” says Megan Barnes, former owner of The Mogul Mom, a blog and member community designed to offer support, networking and resources for crafters, especially those who want to convert their hobby-scale ventures into lucrative part-time or full-time businesses.
“Etsy is a terrific platform for selling your craftsmanship,” Barnes says, “but how do you distinguish yourself from the dozens, hundreds or thousands of other vendors who sell a similar product and may be more established in their Etsy presence?”
She recommends three proven effective tips:
1. “Diversify your selling platforms,” Barnes says. Etsy and other biggies are great, but your product may be lost in the crowd. Find other online venues that are “off the beaten path” and smaller in scale. She suggests checking “small platforms like Zibbet, Shop Handmade, iCraft, or “a micro-platform like The Mogul Mom market.”
2. “Cultivate strategic business relationships,” says Barnes. “Is there another product/service/business that creates a need for your product? Think broadly here.” For example, Barnes consulted with Elizabeth, a Mogul Mom member who was a dean at a local college and had a card-making hobby on the side. She was turning her card-making into “a lucrative business” but broadening her view could make it even better. “Don’t think of what you do as just making greeting cards,” Barnes told her. “You specialize in high-touch personal connections in an age where that is rare and valuable.”
The two brainstormed and afterward Barnes connected Elizabeth with Jennifer, a woman who runs a small company that offers support to families of high school students looking to get into college. With a new view of her product’s value and a new connection, Elizabeth can create and send custom greeting cards to congratulate Jennifer’s clients on their accomplishments, says Barnes.
3. Use content marketing. “You don’t have to have your own blog to be effective at content marketing,” notes Barnes. “Many blogs are seeking guest contributors to write articles for them. By providing great free value in the form of a blog post, you can get your name (and products) in front of many potential clients.”