Turning a hobby into a living

Making a living from their hobby is the dream of many craftspeople. In a slight change of pace, I explore here how they can turn this dream into reality. I’ve focused on woodland crafts because, as an amateur green woodworker, that’s what I know about. But the lessons are the same for pretty much anyone wanting to turn pro.

As our jobs become more stressful and less secure, an increasing number of us spend our few idle moments wondering what it would be like to jack in the day job and make a living by doing something that we truly love. Whether it is managing a woodland, making chairs or carving spoons, the thought of using our skills to create an exciting and profitable business holds many of us in its thrall. But what would it be like to turn our hobby into our livelihood? And how can we make it happen?

Turning your hobby into a business

The most important thing to recognise is that doing something as a business is totally different from doing it as a hobby. While amateur craftspeople can pick up their tools from time to time and simply potter away on whatever they feel like, professionals do not have this luxury. “It’s like the difference between fixing your own car or decorating your home and earning a living from it professionally,” says Robin Wood, master woodturner and Chair of the Heritage Crafts Association. This means, he explains, that you will need to get much better at what you do. And faster.

Put simply, you’ll be working harder than you have ever worked before. So the key, says professional green woodworker, author and teacher Mike Abbott, is to approach what you do with energy and passion. You also need to have a clear idea of where you want to be and how you are going to get there. “Write down clearly your well-thought-through reasons for setting up and how you intend to fulfil these objectives,” he advises. This will help to keep you focused on what is important and to motivate you through the challenges that you will inevitably face.

So you’ve got the craft skills, the energy and the passion. But what do you want to do with them? Mike Abbott recommends focusing on what you are most enthusiastic about.  “Design the business around what you’d like to do,” he says. “Everybody finds their own particular niche.” It’s also important to consider whether your new business will be your sole source of income or whether it is something that you could do as a sideline, at least in the early days.

Finding your market

Clearly, doing what you do is only half of the equation. You are going to need to sell it, too. And this means that you’ll need to find customers, which takes us into the realm of marketing. “Marketing brings together various aspects of understanding what your customer is likely to want, reaching them, building a relationship with them, moving them towards a purchase and making a profit,” says Bristol-based marketing consultant Ben Wheeler. “If you don’t succeed with this you are going to find keeping the business afloat an uphill task.”

One of the things that is likely to make your work appealing to customers, says Ben, is that it is unique. But this can also make it difficult to identify who these customers are likely to be, especially if your work is unlike anything else on the market. You also need to think about how you are going to reach your customers, how much they will be willing to pay and how they are physically going to purchase things from you. It’s important, after all, that you are making things that your customers want to buy – and that you make it as easy as possible for them to do so.

“Start with an excellent website,” says Robin Wood. “Then have a really good website. And did I mention your website must be superb? Seriously spend money on it, look at the best ones out there and get something similar.” And try to get out and meet your customers in person. Craft fairs and arts trails, for example, offer a perfect way for you to get to know your potential customers and for them to get to know you. Explain to potential customers what is important to you and what makes you different, says Ben Wheeler. Connect with them on an emotional level. Create your own personal ‘brand’ that engages and inspires them.

Diversification

As you build your business, you might also want to consider other ways in which your craft can help you to make a living. This could include running courses, writing books or demonstrating at craft fairs. “I stopped taking on commissions and selling products some years ago,” says master craftsman and green woodworker Guy Mallinson. “I now run courses in craft, which is a sustainable business albeit a modest one. The advantage being that we have regular work and that people seem happier to part with their money to learn a skill rather than for an item that they may not always appreciate the time and skill involved in making.”

This approach isn’t for everyone, though. “Many craftspeople make a significant proportion of their income from running courses or doing paid demonstrations,” says Robin Wood. “I always wanted to make a living primarily from making stuff and selling it, to me that is what a craftsperson is.” Mike Abbot, who runs green woodworking courses, takes a more pragmatic approach. “It’s sometimes frowned upon if you have to teach rather than make, but it can be a nice way to earn a living,” he says. “The recreational aspect has paid better than the making for me.”

Making the sums add up

Whether you choose to stick to your craft or to branch out into other activities, it’s vital that the money side of things works out, too. And this means that you need to know three things.  Firstly, how much will it cost you – in terms of materials, consumables, packaging, etc. – to produce one unit of whatever you make? Secondly, what other costs will your business incur, such as equipment purchases, rent, business rates, web design, tax (more about that later) and other outgoings? And thirdly, how much money do you need to be left with after all of your costs have been taken into account? This will be the money that you have to pay yourself a salary and to invest in the future of the business.

The difference between what you are able to charge for one unit of what you make and the amount that it has cost you to make it is known as the ‘gross profit’ on each item. And, if the business is to be sustainable, the gross profit from everything that you sell needs to be enough to cover all of your costs and the money that you want to be left with at the end. So if you add up all of these costs and divide them by your expected gross profit on each item, this tells you how many items you are going to need to make and sell in a given period. And yes, it really is that many.

But the price that you can charge for something is determined by how much your customers are willing to pay, rather than on how much it has cost you to produce it. This might mean that some things are just not financially viable to produce. But it might also mean that your customers are happy to pay more, so that you are able to make more money on each thing that you sell. This is why it is important, as Ben Wheeler emphasises, to understand your potential customers when thinking about what to make and how to market it.

Running the business

When you start up your business, you will need to decide whether you want to just run it as you, known as being a ‘sole trader’, or whether you want to set up your own limited company. If you go the first route, you need to pay income tax and national insurance on any profit – which is any surplus left over from your income once you have paid all of your costs – that your business makes. If you set up your own company, your profit will be subject to corporation tax and you’ll still need to pay income tax and national insurance on any salary that you take. And with either approach, if you are successful enough to generate income in excess of £85,000 (as at 2017/18), you’ll need to register for and pay value added tax (VAT), too.

So as well as being a skilled craftsperson, you will need to develop a broad range of business skills, from planning and time management to marketing, financial management and record keeping. The good news is that these skills are easy enough to learn and there are plenty of resources and business professionals to help you on your way. “I went on a ‘start your own business’ course,” says Mike Abbot. “It was the best few days I ever spent.” Slightly more difficult, he says, will be juggling the demands of your business with your family and other commitments, especially while you are working hard to get things up and running.

Despite the hard work, the uncertainty and the challenges of working for yourself, very few people who have set up their own businesses would ever consider going back to working for someone else. While it can be daunting to live without the security of the monthly pay cheque, starting your own woodland crafts business can allow you to step out of the rat race and live the life that you want to lead. But it’s important to do it for love, not money. “It’s all about the lifestyle,” says Mike Abbott. “If you want to get rich, forget it.”

This article was first published in ‘Living Woods’ magazine.

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