Could Your Hobby Be a Part-time Business?

Educators who have turned their passions into profits share their secrets for small-business success.

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by NEA Member Benefits

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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?

Many educators already earn extra income from their hobbies-turned-spare-time-businesses by selling their wares on craft sale sites such as Etsy, their own websites or other online venues.

WHAT’S YOUR HOBBY?

Handmade Jewelry

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.

Crochet Caps

Crocheting was the hobby that Cheryl Alspach, a social studies teacher at Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Mount Holly, New Jersey, enjoyed. Now she sells her handcrafted creations on her Etsy site, Erma’s Inspiration. In 2014, she and other staff at her school formed a Crochet for Cancer Club where students could learn a skill and help people in need at the same time. By Thanksgiving, the club’s 10 members had made and donated 42 crocheted hats for cancer patients.

Origami products

Ben Coleman, a former eighth-grade math teacher in Fall River, Massachusetts, expresses his artistic side in origami, the art of folding paper into sculptures. He turned that hobby into The Origami Bonsai Company and sells origami books, kits and products on his website, OrigamiBonsai. “My income includes streams from Etsy, eBay, Amazon,” and royalties from Tuttle Publishing and Google for his YouTube.com videos, Coleman says.

Stationery shop

“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.

THE SECRETS TO THEIR SUCCESS

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. Woods 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.

Scout the competition to see what others are doing, Woods 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, Woods 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 Woods. She belongs to Craftster and Pinterest and says “Facebook is a great place to find people who share your hobby and/or business goals” and 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, 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 recently consulted with Elizabeth, a Mogul Mom member who is a dean at a local college and has a card-making hobby on the side. She’s 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.”