Making Your Extra Income Work for Your Business

Unless you have truly hit upon “the next big thing” and your business takes off without any effort from you, you will likely need an extra source of income while you get started. Up until this fall I was a full-time teacher, so it would have been fairly easy to keep teaching part-time while starting my business. But teaching requires a lot of take-home work, and uses up a lot of mental energy even when you’re not on the job. It’s also not the kind of work that I could ultimately apply towards Sweet Meats. Mine is primarily a product design business, so I wanted to support myself financially in a way that would also open up new opportunities in my current field.

There are four valuable things I’ve learned in my search for relevant extra income:

  1. The key to moving into a new industry is to start with the areas that bridge your current field and your desired field.
  2. Sometimes you can create a job where one doesn’t already exist.
  3. The value of a job is often measured beyond how much it pays you. A job that pays very little, for example, but provides excellent networking opportunities, relevant lines on your resume, or exposure for your business can be much more valuable in the long-term than one that simply pays the rent.
  4. Be symbiotic with your friends.

stitch loungeTo elaborate: there is a sewing studio in my neighborhood called the Stitch Lounge, where you can take classes and rent time on their equipment. I originally looked at it as a place I might be able to consign some of my homemade creations, but then noticed that they didn’t have anyone teaching a plush or pillow class. So I approached one of the owners with a plush class proposal. It turns out that someone had recently asked her to add a plush offering and with my background as a teacher (including a semester of Home Ec.), I was hired right away.

As a source of income, Stitch is not particularly lucrative. I teach 2-3 classes a month, which only amounts to a couple hundred dollars. The opportunities for networking, however, are worth much more than that. Before I had even taught my first class, for example, the owner who hired me referred me to her friend at PSY/OPS, a local type foundry, to help them develop some of their letter forms into decorative plush objects. Not only does design consulting pay more than than teaching, PSY/OPS is a fantastic client to include in a product design portfolio.

the present groupProduction work for friends is also an excellent stepping stone to design jobs. My friends Oliver and Eleanor, of “The Present Group,” sometimes hire me to do production work with them on particularly complex pieces. Likewise, I have also hired them to help with photographs or production when I get swamped. Though we’re basically just doing each other mutual favors, working together like this allows us to confidently refer each other to other clients and provide examples of the work we’ve done.

One final note about extra income: it takes a while (usually at least a few months) for the networking mill to bring enough referrals your way to make ends meet. It is therefore much easier to quit your full-time gig if you have a bit of a savings cushion or a partner who can help support you for a while. That said, if you put yourself out there and you’re good at what you do, the work will find you, I promise.

Why I Decided to Start a Full-Time Business

I’m not an expert on starting a business. I’m exactly the opposite. You will therefore not read the words “you should” very often on this blog. If you’re looking for advice about whether to take the plunge and start your own business, look elsewhere.

I started my own business for a number of reasons:

  1. By Accident or, The History of Sweet Meats: Sweet Meats began as a personal art project. In 2004 I saw a series of Deerhoof videos that show stop-motion animations of the artist Jenny Lew crafting odd plush creations. She made things like a felt videotape with a perfectly snug “cardboard” sleeve. It looked like a lot of fun.I decided I was going to make a ham, a mountain and a pack of cigarettes. I have no idea why I chose those three objects. I only made the ham and the cigarettes and I never finished all of the detailing. Nevertheless, people loved that damned ham. Everyone who came to our house commented on it. One day Andy suggested I make other meats and sell them online. So I did.I never promoted the site to anyone, but eventually, people found it. In July of 2006 so many people found it, in fact, that I turned my poor parents’ farmhouse into a sweatshop for three weeks (I still feel bad about it). Then stores began inquiring about wholesaling and other plush crafters wanted to know where I had them manufactured, so I thought it might be time to take the venture up a notch.

    BUT. I was under contract for another year of teaching Computers and Media Literacy at the K-8 school where I was employed and kind of liked my job, so I ran Sweet Meats as a legitimate side business and tried not to get more orders than I could handle. In 2007, Sweet Meats were set to be featured on CANAL+’s morning show, “La Matinale,” and in an article by Josh Friedland (that never ran in the end) for T: The New York Times Style Magazine. So I saved my money, resigned in April, and started building the business this August.

  2. I don’t have to worry about starving: I’ve got a good savings cushion, a partner who is willing to support the both of us during my first year in business (reciprocity for supporting us while he was in grad school) and family members who are happy to invest or supply interest-free loans simply because they love and trust me. If I didn’t have all three of these safety nets I would have been a bit more hesitant about dropping a full-time salary and benefits for absolutely no income.
  3. I’m terribly insubordinate: This does NOT mean that I don’t work well with people. On the contrary, I work extremely well with others and really enjoy collaboration. It also doesn’t mean that I am bad at following instructions. I know when I am in unfamiliar territory and welcome advice and steps to follow in that case. I am also good at receiving suggestions and honest criticisms when they are indeed honest and optional and not thinly veiled orders. I am very bad at taking orders. Unsolicited, compulsory directions in an area in which I already feel competent leave a bad taste in my mouth. I find them disrespectful and often ignore them. In short, I really need to be my own boss.
  4. I really wanted flexibility: In everything from when I travel to being able to run errands during banking hours. I also tend to have intense “task cravings.” Several times a day I have an overwhelming desire to do a specific type of activity, like organizing and cleaning, collecting materials, writing, researching or bookkeeping. The flexibility to follow my cravings allows me to be motivated and productive in some area almost all day.
  5. Confidence and optimism: This may all come back to bite me in the ass someday, but I honestly believe my long list of brilliant ideas will bring me acclaim and financial stability.
  6. I couldn’t decide what to be when I grow up: I considered architecture and landscape architecture, industrial, graphic and web design, engineering, teaching and a host of other things that could combine my creative/artsy side with my logical/science-y side. I took classes in ALL of these areas and always eventually decided that I didn’t love the field enough to spend all of my time in it. I couldn’t even choose a major in college. I had to make one up that was half music and art and half computer science. All I really ever wanted was the freedom to pursue the multiple projects I always have going on and to have this somehow magically produce money for me to live on. Starting this business is best way I can think of to sort of make this happen.

That’s the long and short of it. So far I love being in business. I haven’t made more than a few hundred dollars since August but I’m constantly learning new things. Each new day is completely different and full of firsts. It’s really fun, exciting and gratifying to see things move forward into the “real world.”