The hunt for 'Plan B' careers

When Continental Airlines furloughed Dave Nease and hundreds of other pilots shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he sought refuge doing odd jobs for a golf club near his home in York, Pa. "Not for the money," says Mr. Nease, who collected unemployment checks while hoping his old job would reopen. "So I could play for free."

But with the end of his benefits fast approaching and more pilots losing their jobs, Nease decided to turn his favorite pastime into a fulltime job - this time for the money.

"It's been a real reality check," says Nease, who, now serves as assistant manager for Hawk Lake Golf Club. His current salary is a third of his old one, and the hours much more demanding. But Nease feels fortunate to at least have had a back-up.

At a time of increasing layoffs, many people are turning their hobbies into viable careers. Some, like Nease, hope the change is temporary. Others have decided to make it permanent.

The number of Americans turning hobbies into careers is not clear, but Don Meyer, director of consumer and public relations at the Hobby Industry Association, says a lagging economy always gives rise to new ideas.

Even if "bricks and mortar" stores aren't springing up immediately, he says, "People are thinking, 'What do I have to lose? I can go after my dream, or I can sit home and do nothing.' "

Concocting a career shift

Kerry Ott went back to a childhood idea, after her job at a software company disappeared.

Since high school, she had loved the chemistry of mixing oils. But her pragmatic side led Ms. Ott to a degree in finance and eventually to an office, where, instead of concocting fragrances, she added numbers.

But three years ago, with the software firm failing, she left her job to pursue her dream of creating perfumes. She cobbled together a business plan and opened Eleuria, a boutique in Longmont, Colo., that makes and sells scents based on personality profiles.

"I probably would never have taken Eleuria past the hobby stage if that position had not gone away," Ott says.

Stores like hers mimic a spurt in small businesses that followed the economic slump of the early 1990s, says Kim Gordon, founder of smallbusinessnow.com, an Internet service that helps small-business owners. "People realized, 'job security does not exist, I want to become self-employed,' " says Ms. Gordon.

Of course, pursuing a hobby is not always the most economically viable option. While her store remains open for business, Ott still works as an accountant. "I work at accounting to keep my personal finances above water and to allow us to reinvest more of the company's profits," she says. Her business partner, Laura Olinger, a former consultant from the software firm, runs the company by day.

Starting a business in the midst of an economic slump can pose major challenges, say experts. For one thing, consumers are less willing to buy. "Just because you are good at something does not mean that other people are going to want your product," says Peter Sander, coauthor with his wife, Jennifer Sander, of the new book, "Niche and Grow Rich."

Still, Mr. Sander says, if you find the right niche, success is possible in a bad market. For Tom Ritenour, a general contractor in Granite Bay, Calif., that niche was building home offices. His company, AWL Points Reconstruction, is prospering "given the economy," says Sander.

The climate for small businesses could improve in the wake of the 10-year, $350 billion package of tax cuts, rebates, and new breaks for businesses and investors signed into law last week.

Meantime, the success of start-ups often depends on the experience and tenacity of the entrepreneurs behind them.

A gamer's business

Theo Fiala drew from his 15 years of work as a financial controller in Chicago in launching a board-game business.

Throughout the 1990s, during time off from his fulltime job, he designed games with his children. When Mr. Fiala's company was acquired by a Japanese conglomerate in the late 1990s, he was fired, and he enrolled in computer-design classes at a local community college.

It wasn't necessarily the most stable path for a father of four, he says. But with the support of his wife, Peggy, who works as a registered nurse, Fiala pursued his dream.

He has since manufactured 2,500 Toads of Fun - a board game where toads eagerly gobble up flies basking on lily pads. He originally made the game years ago for his preschool daughter.

Fiala says worrying about filling inventories and working on marketing plans have not made the business a chore for him, yet. "It's all still so new to me," he says.

Certainly one of the biggest risks hobbyists face is that their outside interests can quickly get wrapped up in the stress and monotony of an everyday job.

"People don't realize that liking to make furniture is only a small part of putting a furniture business together," Gordon says.

But in Ott's case, it is also an opportunity to learn more about her hobby.

"I get to work with new ingredients all the time - which is great fun - and I probably wouldn't get that chance if I was still in hobbyist mode," Ott says. "So there are trade-offs, but to me they have been well worth it."

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