How to Turn Your Hobby Into a Career


A FedEx driver hand-crafting soaps. A hairstylist hawking porkless bao buns. A restaurant manager repurposing denim jackets.

The dream of turning a hobby in to a Plan B career is almost a cliché of the gig economy, with countless tips published on selling vintage comic books, brewing beer, playing video games and even telling jokes.

After a year scarred by the coronavirus pandemic, however, in which millions of Americans lost their jobs, it’s starting to look more like a necessity than a fantasy, particularly for people who have been laid off or forced to step away from jobs to tend remote-schooled children.

Yelp recorded nearly 100,000 business closures during the first eight months of 2020, but also a 10 percent rise in new businesses selling cupcakes, doughnuts, cakes, macarons and other desserts. Etsy saw a 42 percent spike in new sellers in the third quarter of 2020, when compared to the year before.

“It could be that some just wanted to answer their creative calling,” said Dayna Isom Johnson, Etsy’s trend expert. “But for many during this unprecedented time, it’s about people who have faced unexpected financial challenges, whether they are unemployed or furloughed by their jobs.”

Here are five who made the leap during the pandemic.

He had no formal food training, but his recipes radiated a homey, tonight-I’ll-treat-myself vibe. “I started getting messages from essential workers like, ‘I come home from work and watch your stories, and it’s a source of comfort to me,’” Mr. Pelosi said.

“A lot of people are looking to get into I.T. work,” said Eric Warner, a web programmer in Chippewa Falls, Wis. “I am looking to get out.”

Quarantine may have given him just the nudge he needed.

While isolated at home with his wife and two children, Mr. Warner, 46, started a second career he hopes to make his primary source of income: cutting custom vinyl records in his basement, often as gifts for anniversaries and birthdays.

Two years ago, he bought a $10,000 record lathe, which looks like an overgrown D.J. turntable aboard the Death Star. It is a highly specialized machine that feeds an analog signal to a diamond stylus that carves grooves into a blank disk.

“There is really no reason that anyone would want to buy one,” he said.

As a private hairstylist to Nike designers, Amazon executives and other well-off clients, Thuy Pham was living the life.

“I was able to make good money working only three to four days a week, which was a great schedule for a single mom,” said Ms. Pham, 40, who lives in Portland, Ore., with her 7-year-old daughter, Kinsley. “I was traveling, going to music festivals. When you have a career like that, why would you consider leaving?”

Then Portland went into lockdown last March, shuttering her business. To pass the time, she began scouring YouTube for Vietnamese meat-free recipes (Ms. Pham is vegan), including mock-pork belly made with coconut milk, tapioca and rice starches, in the traditional style of Vietnamese Buddhist monks.

“Cooking for me was always a way to share love and affection with my family,” said Ms. Pham, who came from Vietnam to the United States in the 1980s.

She has no plans to return to hair styling, except maybe as a customer. “I hope that I can afford myself as a hairstylist someday,” she said.

When schools closed last March because of the pandemic, Tiffany Dangerfield, 31, of Huntsville, Ala., had a difficult choice: continue working long days as a delivery driver for FedEx, or stay at home with her three children.

“There was no way my four-year old was going to put himself on the live class meeting every morning,” Ms. Dangerfield said.

She took over teacher duties at home, while her husband, James Dangerfield, 31, worked as an assembly operator for a local defense contractor. Money was tight, but she soon found another income stream.

About a decade ago, her husband was a corporal in the Army stationed in Vicenza, Italy, and her young son and daughter were suffering from eczema and chronic dry skin. Nothing that doctors on the base prescribed proved helpful, so she started making chemical-free soaps.

Last August, Sonia Murga, 38, a manager at Mr. Chow, a buzzy restaurant in TriBeCa, was on her way to Rite Aid near her apartment in Ridgewood, Queens, when she heard a loud pop.

This was not her first foray into fashion. Ms. Murga, who has a marketing degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology, had been playing with denim since her 20s. “I was always ripping up denim, doing these crazy, funky things,” she said.

She wore her creations to work at Mr. Chow, which sometimes drew the attention of its glittery patrons. She made a jacket embroidered with patches that spelled “Hood” for La La Anthony, and one embroidered with the phrase, “The King of Bachata” for the Latin pop singer Romeo Santos.

Adopting the sneaker-drop model, Mrs. Murga plans to release 10 to 15 new jackets every season, on top of custom orders. Her revenues are about $2,000 to $4,000 a month, giving her hope that she will soon seat her last four-top.

“Lying in the hospital,” Ms. Murga said, “made me realize I didn’t want to be remembered for chicken satay.”


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