Categorized | Career

Turning Your Hobby Into Your Job

Posted on 22 May 2010

Jim Hillestad, former VP of Creative Services at Chemical Bank, remembers the massive corporate lay-offs of the ’80s all too well–especially the day he was told to cut his staff from 38 to 15. Jim balked and, at 48, took a voluntary severance package himself. He never looked back.

When some people lose a job, they literally don’t know what to do with themselves. Others, like Jim, know exactly where to turn–to their hobby. Ever since childhood Jim had been fascinated with toy soldiers. As an adult he became a part-time collector and dealer.

Losing his job enabled Jim to realize his dream of making his hobby more than a sideline. He traded the bustle of Manhattan for the tranquillity of the Pocono Mountains where he built what has become the largest toy-soldier museum in the country. His museum, which is open to serious collectors by appointment only, is home to over 35,000 toy soldiers.

An avocation is defined as “a subordinate occupation pursued in addition to one’s vocation especially for enjoyment.” Want to turn your avocation into an enjoyable vocation? Here’s how:

Be Creative (About Making Money That Is)

Ann Kullberg always loved to draw. Then 13 years ago she discovered professional-grade colored pencils. A neighbor suggested she enter one of her drawings in the county fair near her home outside Seattle, Washington. She won first place.

At the time, Ann was a homemaker and mother of two small children, one with severe autism. When her marriage ended, Ann was at a crossroads. She could put her children in day care and go back to teaching or try to make a living with her art, a prospect Ann remembers as being “really scary.”

She knew that creativity alone wouldn’t pay the bills. But coming up with creative ways to support herself with her art just might. Today Ann travels the country teaching classes, does commissioned portraits, has a contract to write a book (her second) and is designing colored pencil by number kits for beginners.

She also has her own on-line magazine, Professionals and novices alike sign up for book reviews, critiques of artist’s work, business and art advice, workshop listings and more. In just four months over 200 paying subscribers signed up.

Pay Attention and Shoot High

You never know when or where inspiration will strike–so pay attention! When Travis LeDoyt was in ninth grade he signed up for his high school talent show. In typical teenage fashion, he wasn’t sure what his act would be until 30 minutes before show time. That’s when he came up with the idea to lip sync an Elvis tune. His performance took first place. At next year’s show he sang for real. And once again, he won. Little did Travis know that his last minute decision would set him on a future career path.

Out of high school the furthest thing from Travis’ mind was becoming a professional Elvis impersonator. He’d put on his blue suede shoes to perform at some local function once a year or so. But Travis says it was more of a lark than a hobby. What he really loved was music. So, at 21 he taught himself to play guitar and piano.

Last summer Travis stole the show at a local ’50s festival in Greenfield, Massachusetts. That’s when he started “paying attention.” He polished up the band, recorded a CD and set about learning everything he could about the music industry. “Once you have a goal in mind,” he says, “one thing just seems to lead to another.” With what he says were “high hopes,” the 23-year-old sent his CD to major rock n’ roll festivals around the country.

His high hopes–and hard work–paid off. Travis just returned from performing at the International Rockabilly Hall of Fame Celebration with the likes of Brenda Lee, the Comets and Elvis’s original back-up singers, the Jordanaires. Now it’s on to the big time. Travis has been chosen to sing at this summer’s Elvis Presley Festival in the King’s own hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi.

Start While You Still Have a Job

While still in the corporate world Jim Hillestadt had another sideline, freelance advertising. Today he combines being a toy-soldier collector-dealer with his own full-service ad agency. As Jim sees it, “Some are born to follow a path. Others have the good fortune to find a fork in the road and follow both paths.”

In those early years, Ann supplemented her art by substitute teaching and cleaning houses. Travis still works part-time at a large grocery chain. Few people can afford to just up and quit their jobs to follow their passion. That’s why Jim advises everyone to have some kind of parallel business in addition to his or her job. “That way,” he says, “when you’re ready to take the leap, you’ll have something to leap to.”

Getting Started

Step 1: If you already have a hobby, skip this step. Otherwise, make up your own “I’d rather be� bumper sticker. Would you rather be following sports, writing poetry, gardening, shopping, fixing things, fishing, watching old movies? Don’t get hung up on whether or not you can earn a living at your “hobby” just yet. For now it’s enough to tap into your natural interests.

Step 2: Once you’ve nailed that assignment, you’re ready for another. Get a notebook and label it “Shopping for a Living,” “How to Make Money Watching Movies,” or whatever it is you’d like to do. Then, get busy studying all the ways you could do just that. Here are some good places to start:

The Web
Visit web sites featuring your hobby or interest. Note what potential customers are looking for. See if you can find any untapped niches.

Industry associations
Professional and industry associations offer a wealth of information. Is whipping up a four-course meal your idea of a good time? The United States Personal Chef Association ( can help you get out of your kitchen and earning money in someone else’s.

Into crafts?
Check out the National Craft Association ( You’ll find craft and trade show listings, a small business center and handy resources like the Directory of Wholesale Reps for Crafts Professionals.

There’s a book for practically every hobby or interest. Love sports? Read “Careers for Sports Nuts: & Other Athletic Types” by William Ray Heitzmann and Mark Rowh. Love to shop? Cathy Stucker (aka “The Idea Lady” at tells you how you can get paid to shop and eat.

The larger bookstores are where you’ll find such niche publications as Cats & Kittens, Canoe & Kyack and Gold Prospecting. Peruse the ads for clues as to possible income streams.

Step 3: With your notebook filled with lots of neat ways to turn your hobby into your job, you are, as they say, ready to rock n’ roll. From here, says Travis, the formula for success is pretty straightforward: “Have a goal in mind. Then go for it.” Elvis himself couldn’t have said it better.

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2 Comments For This Post

  1. Jill from Best Sewing Machine says:

    There is a lot of great information in this article. I am a “creative” type with several hobbies and I’d really like to turn one of them into my vocation. I agree with starting while you are still employed advice – it may take a little longer but much less stressful in the long run!

  2. ACS Distance Education says:

    I guess getting educated is the place to start – you may have dream and a hobby which could turn out to be lucrative, but do you really know how to put it all together and make it work. Perhaps starting a small business or business planning courses would be a great place to start, or maybe you need to think more about the hands-on side of your project. Do you need to develop your skills or knowledge to be taken seriously by peers in your chosen field. Whatever your dream, you can do it!

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