The Hobbyhorse That Became a Career
It takes great perseverance to make a living from a pastime
Many people -- convinced that if you do what you love, the money will
follow -- give it all up to convert their skill at a craft or other pastime
into a business. Others find themselves in business almost accidentally.
Take John Sprankell of Dayton, Tenn. If you had told him five years ago
that he would build 14,000 rocking horses in his garage, he'd have told
you that you were -- well, off your rocker.
His wild ride started in 1986 when his daughter, then 8 years old,
gave her parents a list of things she wanted for Christmas. Every item
on it was plastic junk, available at any discount retailer. Sprankell decided
to build her something instead -- a wooden rocking horse. No sooner had
he finished than a friend asked him to build one for his toddler. Word spread
quickly. In the next two years, John piled up 50 orders.
In 1988, two months before Christmas, John and his wife, Ann, found themselves
with orders for 58 horses. They built them in the garage and the kitchen.
In 1989, they started selling wholesale in their region and enlisted the
entire family. Their teenage daughters put hair on the horses while
watching television. Soon, there were horses in just about every room in
By 1995, John was working full-time and building rocking horses every
spare minute. He learned to get by on five hours of sleep, six
days a week. In October, 1995, he took early retirement from his regular
job and expanded his business, which by then included his wife, daughters,
a son-in-law, and three employees. They now build between 60 and 80 rocking
horses a week for a number of wholesalers. John says he always had a sense
that he would be an entrepreneur someday.
What does it take to parlay skill at a craft into such an active business?
Most people give up too quickly. Few are willing to do what it takes. John
started making horses for sale in 1986, but it wasn't until 1995 that he
could build enough to retire from his day job. It takes a lot of rocking
horses to support a family, so he had to be extraordinarily patient and
determined as he built his part-time business into a full-time endeavor.
What sustained John? A religious man, he believes that this is his calling
in life. He really loves making the toys. His wife was supportive and joined him
in the business, putting up with the mess and the constant demands on John's
time. How many women do you know who could cheerfully tolerate tripping
over herds of rocking horses on their way to the kitchen?