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Pecks Vanilla

Labor of Love: Microbusinesses take their pastimes to professions

Is your job your passion? Or is your job just that: a job, a thing you do for money, a thing you do to support your passion—which, otherwise, certainly couldn’t support itself.

But what if it could? For some entrepreneurs, hobbies and passions outgrow their post-work, leisure-time hours and grow into something a little bigger. Most of these small microbusinesses haven’t sprouted to the point where they’re the entrepreneur’s first focus or allowed them to quit their day jobs. But for these entrepreneurs, these side projects take time, skill, planning, marketing and love—everything a larger enterprise needs and more.

“How many hours am I not thinking about it?” laughs Marcella Hill of her own business, Love Woolies. “I’m up to 1 a.m. doing it, and it’s the first thing I think about when I wake up.”

Overgrown hobbies

Alan Peck has always liked the idea of being a “maker.” He works for Adobe, has an art degree, and loves to paint and illustrate. He likes having projects, several things running at once—it helps his ADD, he says, and it feeds his creative drive. “Ever since I was a little kid, I was always making things,” he says.

In 2011, Peck wanted to create an interesting handmade holiday gift and happened upon the idea of homemade vanilla extract. “I wanted to design the label as well. It sounded like a natural fit, fun and really cool,” he says. He read recipes online and made batches of vanilla extract for his friends, who responded with great enthusiasm. So great, in fact, that Peck was inspired to try selling his vanilla extract at holiday boutiques. Today, Peck makes two different vanilla extract strengths and two different types of vanilla-infused sugar, which he sells online and at conventions.

This seems to be a running theme for microbusiness owners: their side-project suddenly outgrows its hobby status. Aaron Chapman, owner of The Organ Grinder FX Studio, has loved making Halloween props, masks and sculptures since high school, but he put his hobby aside for years as he focused on his career in law enforcement.

“I wasn’t real secure in what people thought about my work and my art. I never thought it would make it out there in the public,” says Chapman. “But after the time where Facebook and [social media] got popular, I made the decision to put it out into the public and see if I can make some money doing it.”

Hill happened upon her own venture when a family member began making mittens out of old wool sweaters, inspiring her father to begin selling the craft. Hill stepped in after her parents retired and bolstered the business, which now, she says, has taken over her free time.

Selling strategy

Owning a microbusiness means having to wear every hat in the company, from sales and marketing to manufacturing. Hill says she listens to podcasts to learn more about business strategy as she looks to take Love Woolies to the next step. Already, she says she has eight employees that she hires on an “as-needed basis” during her busiest months, and she is constantly hard at work pumping up her brand on social media, reaching out and collaborating with other microbusinesses and with social media influencers.

“We just reached 1,600 followers, and that’s just from collaborating,” says Hill.  “One thing I’ve learned is making friends takes you a lot further than you think. Just being a nice person. Going to market, talking to the person next to you, being interested in their businesses—then they’re willing to do giveaways with you, talk about you and your product. … Posting product pictures is fine, but you want to collaborate and talk about other people’s businesses, too.”

For Chapman, Hill and Peck, going to markets and conventions is their bread and butter. At conventions and maker’s markets, microbusinesses can interact with the public and with each other, bolster one another and create a community.

Chapman, who is based in Roosevelt—near Vernal—says that much of his business comes from the treks he makes into Salt Lake City for the Halloween in Summer Festival, Fear Con, and the Halloween Expo and Show. After that, he depends on word-of-mouth reviews from his clients to drive sales and traffic to his Facebook and Etsy shops. While he hopes to one day own or support a haunted house with his props and sculptures, he knows his rural location is his biggest hurdle. Getting out in front of his possible clients at shows, then, is all the more important.

“That’s where I make a lot of my money, the bulk of my money, is from conventions,” he says. “With Halloween in Summer, I generally make my booth money back plus quite a bit more. I do very well with Halloween in Summer, because they have an established market.”

While conventions and markets account for a huge bump in sales for a microbusiness, they also represent a huge outlay of time spent in preparing for them. Chapman says that two to three months before Halloween in Summer, he will begin the process of deciding what to make (miniature zombie heads for mantle display, he says, was his latest project), then sculpt and paint for days on end.

For Peck, the situation is quite similar, minus any zombie appendages. He uses markets to get in front of possible clientele, get feedback on his products, and see what sells quick and what sells slow. A batch of his vanilla extract takes three months to brew, so he has to start early for his markets: Salt and Honey, Beehive Bazaar and holiday gift markets. Peck says the markets give him good insight on what people want, although it’s not always predictable—his vanilla-infused powdered sugar, he says, can sometimes sit untouched for an entire market or disappear within hours.

Hill—who sells at Sundance Harvest Fest, Salt Lake City Farmer’s Market, Park Silly Sunday, the Salt Lake Family Christmas Gift Show and Christkindlmarkt at This is the Place Heritage Park—has to have at least 100 mittens for the markets and around 400 mittens for the larger shows. While the shows are great exposure, she says, she hopes to get to a point where most of her business is online.

“One thing that’s nice about the markets is it gives you a steady paycheck. I would definitely do those bigger markets as I’m growing my businesses, but I would hope that in two or three years, I don’t have to do them,” she says. “I’d like to be making enough sales online that I can hire someone to do the markets for me.”

For Peck, the markets he does feels like the right balance—for now. He says he hopes that soon he can go into retail as his next step. “I don’t want it to take over my life, but I want to give it the attention it needs,” he says. “I’m trying to find the balance of life satisfaction and ROI.”