Spokane Journal of Business

Blending work, play in hobby entrepreneurship

Consider several key factors before launching own venture

  • Print Article

Work and hobbies lie at opposite ends of the motivational spectrum. By definition, we go to work to make a living and practice hobbies in our leisure time, primarily for intrinsic enjoyment. Rather than maintaining strict boundaries between work and leisure, many follow the advice of ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” 

In my research using the Panel Study of Entrepreneurial Dynamics II—a nationally representative sample of entrepreneurs in the United States—I found that 26 percent of nascent entrepreneurs started businesses that grew out of a hobby, a phenomenon I call hobby entrepreneurship. 

Many of the world’s most admired companies began with passion for a hobby. 

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates—the richest man in the world today—developed a fascination with computer programming starting at age 13, when he wrote his first computer program, a tic-tac-toe game. 

Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak bonded over their love for technology as members of the “Homebrew Computer Club,” with their first two computers—the Apple I and Apple II—initially designed as a hobby and without intent for profit. 

Walt Disney grew up with a passion for art and drawing, selling sketches to neighbors in his childhood and contributing cartoons to his high school’s paper. 

Clearly, these notable examples of entrepreneurs who took their passion for a hobby and monetized it to wild success are the exception rather than the rule. When we talk about passionate entrepreneurs such as these, we often glamorize the positive and ignore the negative, including those who have started upon similar paths only to be met with discouragement and feelings of failure. 

The truth is, many hobbyists turn to entrepreneurship not because they want to be entrepreneurs, but because it’s a vehicle for them to pursue their passion. 

Although hobby entrepreneurs who start new ventures as a vehicle to monetize their passion would seem to reap the benefits of an idealized job form as the best of both work and leisure, such a career path often entails significant sacrifice. Any aspiring hobby entrepreneur must ask, “How much am I willing to sacrifice to make my passion my profession?” 

I became fascinated with this question of motivation and passion so much that it was the focus of my dissertation, and together with Jeff McMullen, of Indiana University, studied entrepreneurs who don’t start a business because they have a passion for entrepreneurship, but because they have a passion for their craft.

Artists, for example, typically face dismal job prospects. We analyzed the arts alumni who participated in the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project survey, and found that 22 percent from U.S. universities are working as employees in jobs related to their art. Instead of resigning themselves to work outside of their art, 42 percent of those alumni took their career into their own hands by becoming self-employed or starting a business. 

Moreover, we found that self-employed artists experience extremely high intrinsic satisfaction with their work; they love what they do. But compared to the arts alumni working as employees—whether in work related, or unrelated, to their art—they experience significantly lower extrinsic satisfaction, facing a less stable or financially rewarding career path. 

To better understand the dynamics of those who strive to turn their passion into a profession, we developed a theory of hobby entrepreneurship, specifically seeking to shed light on the question, “How does hobby monetization bolster or erode passion for the hobby?” If you’re considering turning a hobby into a business, asking yourself these three questions may help you determine whether it’s worth the risk:

How much money do you need to make? Whether you’re single, married, or supporting a family with children, think about your cost of living as well as your need for financial autonomy. Most entrepreneurs don’t quit their “day job” to pursue their startup full time right away. 

If you have a stable income to cover your financial obligations, you might prefer to pursue the hobby-related business on the side, affording you the latitude to enjoy the hobby and explore its market potential without the pressure of relying on it as a significant source of income. 

As you increase commitment to your hobby-related business and it begins to generate income, think about any financial tradeoffs you might have to make. If money isn’t a major concern or you have a financial safety net to fall back on when sales are low, you may be able to increase this commitment more quickly.  

How flexible are you? In other words, how willing are you to pivot your hobby to meet market demands? By practicing your hobby, you are creating value for yourself in terms of the enjoyment it provides. But to run a profitable business, you must create value for others—your customers. 

How well does your hobby provide value for customers who are willing to pay? Many hobby entrepreneurs find the divide between their enjoyment of the original hobby and their work on the business increases as money becomes a bigger part of the equation. 

After all, entrepreneurs often have to wear many hats in their businesses. If running and developing a business is distracting from your passion, try delegating or outsourcing tasks to employees, co-owners, or other professionals.

Are you prepared for negative feedback? By opening up your hobby to the rest of the world, you are inviting both positive and negative feedback—about yourself, your competence, and your business. 

The dynamism of entrepreneurship inherently involves a roller coaster of emotions. In starting up a new business, it’s easy to focus on the “ups.” Make sure you are also open to experiencing the “downs” and the impact they could have on your enjoyment of the hobby.  

At the end of the day, hobby entrepreneurship isn’t the right path for everyone. Starting a business may end up shifting your focus away from an activity that would be pursued purely for enjoyment otherwise. A double-edged sword, it has the potential to either bolster or erode your passion for the craft. 

But for those considering taking a passion project to the next level, remember to keep in mind the aspects that motivate and fulfill you. Rather than jumping in right away or taking an all-or-nothing approach, ease into it. Continue practicing what you love, and be humble and open to feedback along the way.

Eventually, you may realize you’ve already been taking steps toward starting a business, and money will enter the equation naturally. If the business ends up taking you so far away from doing what you love that it’s no longer enjoyable, you may want to consider keeping the two separate. 

Benjamin Warnick is an assistant professor of entrepreneurship and strategic management at Washington State University’s Carson College of Business.

  • Guest Writer

  • Follow RSS feed for Guest Writer

Read More

Sign up for our E-mail updates

including the
Morning Edition

Join our list