From The Simple Living Guide by Janet Luhrs (Broadway Books, 1997).

Turn your hobby into a business

Jim Nilsen was a commercial fisherman for 20 years when he realized it was time to do something else. “My heart wasn’t in it,” he says. “It was time to quit.” Jim had enjoyed taking photographs since he was a boy and had gotten a degree in photography during the off season. During fishing season, he shot a lot of photos on the job that were widely published in trade magazines and books. But the market was limited.

It was after a trip to Europe that Jim finally decided to quit fishing. He realized how much he enjoyed travel photography. He didn’t have a market for his photos, but he knew he was through with fishing.

I looked at my financial situation. I didn’t have any debt, everything was paid off, I had $20,000 in the bank, and I lived in half of a duplex that I owned. My monthly expenses were fairly low. Fishing had become a habit and the money was good, but I wondered why I was going back to fishing when I didn’t need to do it any longer. My guts kept telling me to go for it.”

He quit and, for six months, played with the design and layout of his photos. Finally he landed on a concept of using small prints. “I was really excited,” he says. “I thought I had something. I didn’t know much about the market, and I had no idea how vast the arts and crafts market is. I applied to a local street fair, and that was the turning point for me. I made $3,000 in one weekend.”

Jim discovered that there are thousands of arts and crafts shows around the country and thousands of people earn very good money in the arts and crafts field. He says they are dedicated, hardworking, creative professionals. Some are single, and some are couples who operate the business together, with one being the creative force and the other the business person. Others are entire families who travel the country in motor homes and home school their children. The lifestyle works for Jim because his partner, Magrit, is very independent, and they have no children.

Jim did 13 shows his first year. Four years later, he averages about 20 shows a year in 10 states. He says he’s making a very comfortable living that earns him at least what he earned fishing. “I have a lot more satisfaction now,” he says, “and a lot more control over my time.”

Each year Jim, and often Magrit, take a six-week photo trip to places like Greece, Guatemala, Italy, Malta, Mexico, Morocco, Spain, and Turkey. From December to February, he works at home in the studio, which is a garage detached from his house. During this season he produces photographs for the upcoming year. He works approximately five hours a day and takes lots of breaks to ski for the day or go on weeklong vacations with Magrit. He travels to the shows from March to September and again in November, camping in his van or staying in motels.

During show season, the work is hard and sometimes intense, but Jim says the positive response from customers and the freedom make it worthwhile. “Customers really appreciate what I’m doing,” he says. “It’s very satisfying to have someone buy what I produce.”