Workers’ playtime


Turning a hobby into your career may seem idealistic or risky but increasing numbers of dissatisfied workers are finding innovative ways to combine business with pleasure

Imagine spending a working day doing the things you enjoy most. Not just the activities that comprise the best bits of your job but the things you do for relaxation or fun. Think about it. A hobby is something you enjoy, are good at and are knowledgeable about. Could you earn a living from it?

You will need a big dose of realism coupled with lots of hard work, according to level-headed business advisers, who say this question occurs to many but is only viable for a few.

But more from them later. For starters think about the potential: it is better to have a dream you can adapt to reality than to let problems stop you dreaming.

Turning a hobby into a career is, of course, easier if you spend your spare time creating computer code rather than collecting mushrooms, but almost any activity has earning potential.

It is easy to underestimate the knowledge, skills and contacts you develop around something you do in your spare time. You might be an expert without realising it and experts make money from sharing their insight.

Take something like photography, which is easy to envisage as both a hobby and a job. If you’re any good you can earn money simply by doing it because people will pay for what you produce. Perhaps not enough initially to provide a decent income but there are all sorts of related activities that could help keep you solvent. You could teach others to do it or sell photography-related products.

Depending on the other skills you have, you could write about it, give talks or organise photography holidays. There’s no reason why you couldn’t combine all of these. Many who successfully exploit the earning potential of a hobby do so by taking a multifaceted approach.

If the idea of taking the risk of working for yourself does not appeal, you could seek employment doing any one of these activities. Now, substitute your hobby for photography to see if it could work for you.

Sport, art, music, drama and craft skills all have obvious potential but you don’t have to look hard to see people making a living from something that started as an interest in food and wine, clothes, witchcraft, yoga, watching films, listening to music or writing letters of complaint.

Then there’s the question of how good you are at what you enjoy. You don’t have to be among the best in your field to turn your hobby into a career but it does have implications for how you convert an interest into an earner.

If you are very talented, like professional climber Scott Muir, it is possible to get someone to pay you just for doing the activity. But even in those circumstances it takes hard work and a combination of skills.

“Sponsors will rarely come to you,” says Muir. “The main things to focus on is personal excellence; if you’re no good, you won’t get sponsored.

“Then you should start lecturing and honing your public skills and be seen to be active. A lot of my income comes from articles and pictures in magazines and that, in turn, provides the exposure I need.”

Muir also advocates careful research: “Work out why a company should see you as a good ambassador and how your image fits with its brand.

“You must believe in its products otherwise the relationship will never work and, if you switch companies regularly, the doors will start to close. Don’t expect money straight away – it takes years.”

In some ways, being average is easier. A middling musician may never make money out of teaching or performing but could find a niche working in a music shop, concert hall, recording studio or any other corner of the music industry.

Self-employment is not a prerequisite, either. Michael H, who studied law and worked as a medical equipment consultant before becoming a jeweller, lives his dream of being surrounded by priceless gems by working for someone else.

“Getting a job at de Grisogono was ideal for me,” he says. “I’d worked out that to start up my own fine jewellery firm would take at least £7m pounds.”

However, most people who ask themselves the question “How could I make money out of my hobby?” find self-employment to be the answer.

According to Audrey Stirrup from Chamber Business Enterprises in Manchester, most are not adequately aware of the market.

“Their perceptions are a bit rose-tinted because they are normally involved with a willing and supportive audience,” she says.

“It’s hard to be objective about the appeal of something you have a passion for and it’s easy to misjudge how indifferent the wider world might feel.”

Stirrup says many ideas initially presented to business advisers do not have yet have mass-market appeal but offer a good starting point.

“We don’t want to put people off but encourage them to look at the reality and come up with viable alternatives,” she says.

“Our advice is unbiased and based on our knowledge of the market, so clients can make informed choices.”

When Lesley Lofthouse began investigating the viability of running weekend performing arts courses for children, she used census information to help her evaluate potential markets.

“I felt the time was right. There’s a real interest in performance, partly as a result of TV shows like Fame Academy and Stars in Their Eyes, but the crucial question was where would I be likely to find parents who would pay to send their children to classes?” she explains.

“The National Statistics website was a great help – it showed me where the sort of people I needed to target lived.

“I was able to look at details such as age of children, household income, home and car ownership. Hard facts like that are invaluable.”

Another aspect of turning your passion into paid work is that any further training is going to be a real pleasure. Learn Direct has a lot of experience of this through its national advice line, which has dealt with more than 5 million queries.

“A lot of the calls we get are from people exploring the employability value of their hobby,” says a spokesperson.

“We carried out a survey recently, which showed that more people are turning their hobby into their job as a way of gaining personal fulfilment.

“Only 12% of respondents were currently in their dream job and, when it came to saying what that would like to be, artist/crafter came out third for women and fifth for men and gardener came in ninth and eighth respectively.

“To make the dream a reality we found people were willing to retrain, work longer hours and take a pay cut.”

For some the big appeal of working in this way is that the distinction between work and recreation becomes blurred, but this can have a down side.

If you turn your hobby into your career, will the activity cease to bring you pleasure? Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School, says this poses a potential danger.

“Very few people could honestly say their job offers relaxation; the reality is once you turn your hobby into your work it brings pressure. The chances are you’ll have to find yourself a new hobby,” he says.

“It’s easy to work far too hard if you’re motivated and doing something enjoyable. Being overworked is almost inevitable initially, particularly if you have become self-employed.

“But not paying enough attention to the need for time away and involvement in other interests is a recipe for burnout.

“The big danger is losing the ability to switch off and that’s not sustainable. Work-life balance is always near the top of the priorities of today’s workers. Thinking that earning money from your hobby will put that right is a misconception but it is one that many who take this route make.”

Cooper’s warning strikes a chord with Robert Pigot, who swapped a career in a City investment company for a life of kite surfing through his company X-Isle Sports.

Managing his flourishing company does not leave Pigot much time for actual kite surfing. He describes himself as “currently handcuffed to a desk as the business gets bigger” but he does not think this is problem.

“I wouldn’t say turning my hobby into my work has meant I have to find another hobby,” says Pigot.

“I now work at least 12 hours every day – sometimes up to 16 – but I don’t resent this as the end justifies the means.

“I still see kite surfing as a relaxation. Sadly I just don’t get the time unless I go abroad without my mobile or laptop.”

Want to know more?


· Creating a Balance: Managing Stress, by Stephen Palmer, Cary Cooper and Kate Thomas (British Library Publishing Division)

· The Magic of Work, by Mike Pegg (Management Books)

· How to Get a Job You’ll Love, by John Lees (McGraw Hill)


Success stories

Michael H
“My father gave me Gemstones by EH Rutland when I was 14 and I was so fascinated I started collecting books on the subject. It never occurred to me to think of it as a career until 10 years later.

“I studied law at university but soon realised I didn’t want that to be my career so, after graduating, I did an MBA to avoid being pigeonholed as a lawyer.

“I ended up as a consultant for the medical equipment industry. Medical technology is actually quite interesting but I hated the firm and didn’t enjoy my job.

“By now I’d collected a substantial library of books on gemstones and started a gemmology course in my spare time. Through sheer coincidence, a friend who’d worked in a museum as a student introduced me to his former boss, Dr Hubert Bari, who was planning a diamond exhibition at the French Natural History Museum.

“We talked diamonds for hours and a few months later he phoned to ask if I’d work as an assistant on the exhibition – an irresistible offer for a gem nut like me.

“I actually got my hands on the Tiffany, the Incomparable, the Marie-Antoinette Blue and the Portuguese crown jewels as well as intercepting three fakes.

“After six months in Paris I’d decided I didn’t want to be a consultant any more so took temporary work, carried on with my gemmology studies, passed the exams and found work with de Grisogono on New Bond Street in London.

“At my interview I was able to say honestly that I really wanted this career and planned on doing it for the rest of my life. People can tell if you’re into what you’re doing – you sort of sniff each other out.

“For example, occasionally I’ll bump into someone at a party who is obsessed with art deco jewellery or Fabergé eggs and we end up talking for hours. You make valuable contacts that way.

“Even if you’re not a natural salesperson, people feel confident buying from you if you know what you’re talking about. It was as true selling consultancy services to medical equipment manufacturers as it is selling diamonds to millionaires.

“If you’re spending loads of time doing something for free as a hobby, you may as well see if you can get paid for it. I’m earning half what I made as a consultant but I’m much happier.

“It hasn’t spoilt the hobby for me. There’s admin and paperwork but that’s just a small part of it. A job you’re not interested in feels like 100% paperwork and no fun.”

Scott Muir
“I knew the instant I climbed my first route at 15 that this was what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing. People like Chris Bonington were inspirational – going to his lectures let me see the possibilities.

“Training to teach PE seemed like a good idea at the time, it would keep me fit and give me the holidays to go climbing. But I was not suited to working as a teacher.

“I decided to investigate guiding, which would give me more time to climb. After getting my mountain instructor certificate I worked in Nepal, India and Scotland and developed a niche market running high-performance rock and ice-climbing coaching courses.

“I enjoyed it but deep down knew I was good enough to make it even bigger. My real goal was not to work at all but to get sponsorship to climb full time.

“I’d seen how making your hobby your work can take the pleasure out of it. Friends who started guiding because they wanted to do more climbing have ended up too tired to climb for pleasure.

“It’s hard to keep a balance that enables you to make a living and still enjoy the activity for its own sake.

“My breakthrough came after a fantastic winter of very hard mixed ice and rock climbs. I took these to Red Bull, they listened to my plans and decided to back me.

“I’m a walking billboard and look for exposure where I can. This means getting my photo in magazines, making films and lecturing. I earn very little but wouldn’t trade it for anything, it’s a rich life with most of my time spent travelling and climbing.

“Once the ball starts rolling it keeps going. I knew it would, it just took time and effort laying the foundations, networking, meeting people, being in the right place at the right time, working for free and selling myself hard.

“I should be able to carry on doing this for another 20 years. Then I’ll probably move into equipment development, perhaps working for some of the companies who’ve sponsored me to use their gear.

“Working as a professional climber is like being a full-time athlete without the support staff. You are everything: manager, PR, photographer, negotiator and motivator.

“Being very good is not enough in itself, it’s down to how you exploit it to your advantage. Vision and self-belief are essential.”

Lesley Lofthouse
“If it hadn’t been for a local authority reorganisation, I would probably still be working contentedly as an English teacher. I always enjoyed teaching but my real pleasure was bringing students together to work on a performance.

“When my school closed, I was made redundant and decided to see how I might use my skills in other settings. That led to work as a freelance trainer running courses on appraisal and mentoring.

“It gave me the luxury of time to become involved in other things and to start thinking about what I really wanted from my working life.

“The part of my old job I missed the most was putting on the annual play, so I became a volunteer with a local children’s theatre group.

“It was immensely rewarding, there’s nothing quite like shaping a group of eager performers into a cast, developing their skills and confidence to the point where they put on a stunning production.

“Volunteering gave me masses of experience of all the different roles: producer, director, stage manager and set designer.

“Once the idea of setting up a weekend performing arts academy for five to 18-year-olds had occurred to me, I knew it would be the perfect job. Making it happen was a lot of hard work.

“The key was finding talented staff to deliver the dance, drama and music sessions, then seeing if there were enough takers to cover my costs.

“I did quite a bit of publicity in advance of the opening and there was lots of interest, but no telling how many would actually turn up and register.

“I needn’t have worried; on the day we opened, all the places were filled in 45 minutes and I’m now thinking of putting on extra courses.

“It is very different from doing the same sort of thing as part of a teaching job or as a volunteer.

“All the organisational matters are down to me and I’ve taken a financial risk. But the payback in terms of job satisfaction is massive.

“I wish I’d done it sooner. I still love going to the theatre – it’s given added depth to that. I find myself looking at the sets and lighting and listening to the music in a different way and thinking how I could do something similar.”

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