From Passion to Profession?


Everyone feels passionate about something. For some, it might be computer games, handmade candles, or chocolate cream-cheese crunch cake. For others, it may be skydiving, scrap-booking, or just good old-fashioned loafing around.

Whatever your fancy -- no matter how eccentric, exotic, or mundane -- you enjoy it, and that's all that matters. But invariably, some enthusiasts have the proverbial eureka moment, becoming convinced that they have a million-dollar business idea on their hands. So how can you tell whether or not your particular passion has what it takes to make it out of your basement and into the big leagues?

STEP BACK. Begin by vetting it like a standard entrepreneurial endeavor. "It's not any different from any other business," says Gene Fairbrother, lead business consultant for the Dallas-based National Association for the Self-Employed. "You've got to determine first if there's a market for it, then determine how much profit is in it."

Hard as it may seem, you need to stand back and look objectively at your precious idea's potential. While you might enjoy spending an afternoon crafting a piece of jewelry for your colleague's neighbor's wife, it wouldn't make good business sense if you could sell it for only $10. And just because your friends seem delighted every time you give them one of your beloved ceramic frogs, it doesn't mean complete strangers will shell out $40 a pop.

With a hobby-turned-business, you also have to look out for what Steven Rogers, a professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, calls the "me too factor" -- that irresistible urge to jump on the bandwagon once others start successfully commercializing your avocation.

FORGET UNDERCUTTING. "The question is: Is there something distinctly different between your idea and what's already available out in the market?" says Rogers, director of Kellogg's Levy Institute for Entrepreneurial Practice. "You need a distinctive competitive advantage that is not 'me too.'"

In lieu of such a difference, many enthusiasts try to distinguish themselves through lower prices, but Rogers says that's one of the worst ways to compete, since it's almost impossible to maintain once the market grows saturated. Instead, scour your industry's entire range of sales, distribution, and manufacturing channels for a creative approach that'll give you a first-mover advantage.

Rather than simply selling model trains, you could put together auctions and seminars for beginning hobbyists. Instead of opening a fancy restaurant, you might consider supplying upscale supermarkets with gourmet snacks. "There are all different types of tangents that will capitalize on your talents," Fairbrother says.

GOTTA LOVE INVENTORY. Once you've found your niche, do some thorough market research. But beware: Although seemingly straightforward, this is the stage where many passionate hobbyists fail. "People are so doggone convinced that the thing they love is going to be loved by other people that they won't let the research tell them the real story," Rogers says. That's why it's important to have the numbers evaluated by one or more independent third parties, and listen carefully to their feedback.

Even if they give you the green light, you've still got to ask yourself one final hard question: Aside from your passion, do you have any real interest in the business side of things? "If not, you'll take something you really enjoy and mix it with something you really hate," says Jim Bellas, founder of Turning Point Associates, a strategic consulting company in Falls Church, Va.

If you don't have a business bone in your body, he suggests looking for a partner -- someone who may not give a hoot about your collection of all things Sex in the City but does cartwheels over things like inventory, accounting, and customer service.

KEEPING THE SPARK. Finally, keep in mind that hobby industries can be fickle. You'll want to proceed with caution but not move so slowly that your fledgling business hovers indefinitely in the limbo between pastime and profession. If you're serious about taking things to the next level, Rogers recommends striving for profitability within two to three years.

"I'm a big believer that doing what you're passionate about makes a big difference, but it's not just about your passion," says Bellas. "The operative word here is 'doing it as a business.'" The trick is to do that while maintaining your passion.

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