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How I turned my hobby into a business

January 03, 2012

By Robert DiGiacomo | Money Rates Columnist

Heidi Riegler spends her weekdays directing marketing and communications for the National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts in New York City. But on nights and weekends, she often focuses on sweeter matters.

The Austrian native has channeled her love of baking into the Vienna Cookie Company, a part-time, Web-based business that uses recipes handed down through her family.

"I love cookies, and they're sort of dying out in the States," Riegler says. "People know chocolate chip and gingerbread and oatmeal, and that's about it."

In the wake of a recession that forced many Americans to seek new types of work, many have used a personal passion as a springboard to a new business venture. But as Riegler and others can attest, it takes more than passion to ensure the viability of a new business.

Sweet success

Having grown up on her mutti's (mother's) traditional recipes, Riegler has a very nuanced sense of the cookie, with types ranging from the traditional Linzer Heart and Vanilla Crescent to her own creation, the Lemon Twist.

While Riegler has expanded her business in its second year, she is keeping her day job and mainly operating around the Christmas, Valentine's Day and Easter holidays.

"Everybody who eats the cookies loves them," Riegler says. "I think the business certainly has potential -- it just takes marketing and the right packaging."

Riegler is smart to try to build her company before deciding whether to turn it into a full-time gig, according to business strategist Carol Roth, author of "The Entrepreneur Equation."

"You may love your hobby, but it may not create a business opportunity big enough to create an income that you are happy with, or that is a good trade-off for your time and effort," Roth says.

A benchmark for a "healthy" consumer products business is a 10 percent pre-tax margin, Roth says. So for a business owner to earn $50,000 a year in profits, they should aim to sell $500,000 worth of products.

Good flow, good business

For Beth Graham, flow is key to her plans of transforming her personal yoga practice into a viable business.

Graham, the married mother of three high school- and college-age children, discovered the mind-body-spirit benefits of yoga following a 1987 car accident. A decade later, she took her first teacher training. But then life -- including helping run an insurance business with her husband and home-schooling her children -- got in the way.

In May, she was finally able to launch Simply Yoga MD in a Baltimore suburb. Initially, Graham thought the best path was to rent space for her studio and hire other teachers to fill out the schedule. But with yoga being offered in gyms and many other community settings, she realized she might be better off bringing yoga to her students rather than expecting them to come to her.

In 2012, Graham will offer some classes at her studio, but also expand with sessions at a local dance studio and a swimming facility where Olympic medalist Michael Phelps trains.

"In yoga, we use the term surrender," Graham says. "As soon as I surrendered and let go of the attachments of how the business needed to be, it became easy."

Don't rush process

Both Riegler and Graham have followed a basic lesson in converting a personal pursuit into a business: Take things slowly.

Riegler tested her cookies on family and friends before starting the business in 2010. This year, she networked with the Austrian trade and travel commissions to help reach a market interested in her authentic recipes.

Graham took a similarly gradual approach by using space she could rent by the hour instead of locking herself into a lease.

"When you are testing your hobby as a business, truly test the viability," Roth advises. "If you bake cupcakes and your friends and relatives buy them, that hasn't necessarily proven the business model. The key is to see if they come back for more -- and often."

Should your passion be your business?

Avoiding burn-out is another challenge for those who seek to make a career out of their hobby. But for Graham, developing yoga classes and an accompanying weight-loss program have never been sources of stress.

"There was stress on the business side when I was thinking I had to run a classic studio," Graham says. "I was pushing against something that wasn't supposed to happen. As soon as I re-focused, the stress went away."

As much as Riegler loves creating her sweet treats, she doesn't want to spend all of her time in front of the oven. This holiday season, she hired three workers to help process her orders.

"I would love to see if a bigger chain might want to buy my cookies," Riegler says. "My biggest dream is to travel and research the history of cookies and how they were made."

For some entrepreneurs, a hobby may become their main business pursuit, while others may decide to keep it a side venture. But in either case, there are good reasons to think carefully before you seek a profit from your passion.

"You absolutely need to be passionate about making your business a success," says Roth. "But you don't need to make a business from your greatest passion in life."

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