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Crafting A Business

Should you turn your part-time hobby into a full-time business?

Transforming a crafts hobby into a homebased business can be a little bit of heaven and a little bit of hell. At least that's the way it was for Howard Stevens, founder of Shuttleworks Ltd., an 8-year-old Berea, Kentucky, firm specializing in rugs, tote bags, place mats and table runners woven from rags.

Stevens began weaving 12 years ago to relieve stress from his job as a university administrative assistant. "I started having all this merchandise pile up, and I could only use so many things," recalls Stevens, who lives and works in an area known as Kentucky's "crafts capital." To get rid of some of his inventory, he began selling at local crafts shows, where a woman asked him to supply items wholesale for her shop. "I had no idea what she was talking about," says the weaver.

He learned quickly. From selling at crafts shows and wholesaling in the basement of his home, Stevens progressed to opening a retail shop, using $2,000 borrowed from a friend. In these early days, Stevens and the weaver who apprenticed him were the only suppliers.

"We had mohair stoles and a few rugs, and we were proud of it. Then I realized by looking at other shops in the area how little inventory was in my store and knew I had to hustle," says Stevens. He added lines from other local crafters and increased production of his own products, all the while building and maintaining his wholesale accounts and continuing to do crafts shows. The hectic pace continued almost nonstop for five years.

At its height, Shuttleworks' retail outlet made $250,000 a year. "Then one day I [asked] myself, `What am I doing? What's happening?' I thought I was losing it," remembers Stevens. "I didn't want it anymore."

After five years of working seven days a week with little relief, the store had taken its toll. Stevens was burned out.

Stevens' decision to throw his all into making Shuttleworks a success was the correct path for a hobbyist-turned-business owner, says Beth Duncan, a professor and homebased entrepreneurial business specialist with Mississippi State University's Cooperative Extension Service. However, his method of execution was a little extreme.

"I see this repeatedly," says Duncan. "People have a hobby they're good at and reach a point where they try to sell it. But they've still got their hobby hat on. Unless you take the hobby hat off and throw it away, you won't be successful."

What is the "hobby hat"? According to Duncan, it's thinking that the craft is something you do just for fun, and maybe you can make a little money at it. Being successful, on the other hand, takes making a conscious decision that what you do is no longer a hobby and that you are in business to make money. Making a profit has to be the primary motive, she says, and having a fun hobby has to be secondary.

Like Stevens, Hahnville, Louisiana, folk artist Lorraine Gendron had a powerful motivation to turn her hobby into a full-fledged business: necessity.

"My husband worked in the oil fields, and during the oil crunch here [in the early 1980s], unemployment was tremendous. So we turned to what I could do," remembers Gendron.

She had always painted and had even taken a porcelain doll-making class where she learned to pour molds. Later, Gendron discovered that the perfect material to make her dolls was almost literally in her own backyard.

"I was working with limited means and thought, `Where can I get some free clay?' " recalls Gendron. Then she remembered the Mississippi River, which runs behind her home. "We went to the river, brought some clay home, and dried and fired it. When I took it out, it was red," she says.

Gendron used the clay to make dolls representative of Louisiana--a mixture of people; red, black and white.

More than a decade later, and with sales averaging $50,000, Gendron's company--Mississippi River Mud--sells clay and wire dolls, as well as painted and sculpted scenes reminiscent of Louisiana culture.

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This article was originally published in the March 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Crafting A Business.

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