Turning a Hobby 'Addiction' Into Profits

In her spare time, Carly Verble dreams up, makes and sells quirky custom eyewear out of her Los Angeles apartment.

A quick look at the designs on her Web site shows she could easily outfit Elton John or Lady GaGa.

“Ever since high school I was obsessed with blinged-out glasses,” Verble said. “But I pretty much just fell into the whole designing eyewear thing. My real job involves commenting on fashion, which has really made me appreciate the stranger things of fashion. Eventually I thought ‘Why can't I do that too?’"

Verble is emblematic of a growing new “hobbypreneur” movement of creative people turning fun into profit, often using the Internet and other new technologies to sell and distribute their wares. The trend is explored in a new research report: “Today’s Hobbyists are Tomorrow’s Hobbypreneurs,” published by Intuit, the Mountain View, Calif., software company that caters to small businesses.

“Hobbypreneurs are part of the new do-it-yourself movement of crafters, digital tinkerers, green advocates and others looking to move beyond mass-produced goods,” wrote Steve King and Carolyn Ockels, authors of the report. “Unlike earlier DIY movements focused on home improvement and fixing things, the new DIYers are about inventing and making.”

“My manufacturing process consists of me sitting on my couch for hours at a time and lots of glue,” Verble said. “My apartment is what I call ‘organized chaos.’ My dining room table where I collect all my samples. My coffee table has all the things I need for whatever I'm working on, and then I have more storage with drawers that holds all my inventory like fabric and glasses.”

“I'm interested to see where this will take me,” she said. “If it becomes a full-time thing, that would be great.”

Verble sells only on Etsy.com, a fast-growing Web site that provides a virtual marketplace for buyers and sellers of handmade and vintage items and craft supplies. Founded in 2005, Etsy now involves tens of thousands of sellers and $13 million in monthly sales.

It’s been described as a homespun combination of eBay and Amazon.com. Another seller on Etsy is Jackie Kauffman, whose hobby of hand-casting silver jewelry – www.rockmyworldinc.etsy.com - also evolved into a retail storefront at the Galleria Mall in Fort Lauderdale.

“I started taking classes in jewelry casting about five years ago, to try to make some jewelry for myself,” Kaufman said. “As the classes went on, I became more and more interested in delving deeper into casting.”

Finally, she spent $1,500 on a casting machine from a going-out-of-business factory.

“I slowly started selling the items online, and over the past 18 months have sold more than 700 pieces,” Kaufman said. “I developed a process of taking fingerprints from a person, and creating a piece of jewelry in sterling silver with those prints. This process has turned out to be a number-one item for me.”

Jewelry designer Judith Bright even swapped one dream job for another, turning passion into profit.

Bright worked for 11 years as president of Quincy Jones Music Publishing. Ultimately she “gave plenty of notice” and quit “to pursue my life-long dream of becoming a working jewelry designer.”

She went to Italy for six months to study jewelry making and returned to the United States “to make it happen,” eventually moving from Los Angeles to Nashville.

“I started from scratch in my basement, working for two years to put together my collection and signature style,” Bright said. “I launched my Web site in 2007 and since then I've made over $500,000 in sales.”

Bright also was able to parlay some Hollywood connections with savvy marketing skills to place her jewelry in several television shows and movies.

“My designs are appearing in two films yet to be released, The Rebound starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and The Back Up Plan starring Jennifer Lopez,” Bright said. “Mine was also the primary jewelry line for the sitcom Samantha Who, worn by Christina Applegate as well as The New Adventures of Old Christine, worn by Julia Louis-Dreyfus.”

“I'm finally comfortable that I'm truly doing what I should be doing,” she said.

According to the Intuit report, most hobby businesses remain part-time, providing both additional income for the family and a passion outlet for the hobbyist.

“But we learned that hobbypreneurs – especially Baby Boomers – are part of an emerging trend to build a full-time venture from their part-time startup,” King and Ockels wrote. A March 2008 Kauffman Foundation Firm study found that 36% of small businesses surveyed started as a part-time business. Some call this the hobbypreneur’s addiction: Once the business starts growing, it’s hard not to want to grow it more.”

John Olson would likely agree. A few years ago, Olson was a store manager at Publix Supermarkets in Fort Lauderdale, helping a buddy put a four-foot lava rock into his frontyard landscape.

“He decided it would look great as a fountain,” Olson said. “Once we finished it, I had the idea that smaller, table top-size, lava rock fountains would be fun to do. People liked them and I created many different styles, including castles, Roman ruins and pagodas.”

After a successful year of selling "hobby" fountains to local garden centers, Olson saw a potential market for selling supplies to other fountain makers in the southeast, and across the continent.

“Soon I was selling more in fountain making supplies than I ever could have in the actual fountains I was carving by hand,” he said. “For a while I continued making and selling my fountains while I grew the wholesale supply end of the business but eventually I had to cease my hobby and concentrate on what was now a legitimate business with huge potential.”

Embracing the “hobbypreneur’s addiction,” Olson now owns Graystone Industries, one of the world’s leading distributors of fountain and pond pumps and supplies. His 2009 sales trumped 2008 by 35%, he said, and 2010 sales are projected at more than $2 million, with a tidy $400,000 profit for him.

“I really miss carving the fountains, but my family and I are living a real American dream now so I won’t complain too much,” Olson said.

Ockels and King’s report points out the techniques used by hobbypreneurs often are often tradition-rich. “Instead of inventing new technology, [most] focus on alternative uses, re-uses and combinations of existing products and technologies.”

Filling that bill would be Laura Bergman and her company Bottled Up Designs. She has lived her life in the Pennsylvania Amish country, raised on a working farm along the Lancaster County line. She’s been a lifelong collector of antique glass and bottles, many dug out of “numerous antique glass dumps throughout the wooded habitats and rural farmlands in this beautiful part of the country,” Bergman said.

“I have always picked up the pretty whole pieces, and began picking up the broken pieces and doing little crafts with my kids,” she said. “After realizing the amount of wildlife that has to deal with what humans tossed into these areas, I decided to really reclaim this old broken glass and do something useful with it.”

What emerged after trial and error met old-fashioned hard work was a very successful line of recycled glass jewelry.

“Within the first year, I was able to quit my job of 15 years as an advertising manager to work full time on my own company, which has gained worldwide interest and sales,” Bergman said. She’ll probably make more than $100,000 this year, she added.

“Hobbypreneurs mean business,” Ockels and King concluded. “These frugal, tech-savvy, green-oriented, out-of-the-box thinkers are creating new business methods, models and processes. And along the way, they are spurring growth and innovation in the small business marketplace.”