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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 the house.

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?

Have a question on how to handle the pressures of running a business and the impact on your personal life, marriage, and family? Contact Azriela Jaffe at Please put "BW Online question" in the subject field. Your real name will be kept confidential if you request, but please give an E-mail address, phone number, and your hometown so she can contact you for more information. Because of heavy volume, Azriela cannot guarantee that she will answer every query.



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