How To Turn Your Hobby Into An Online Business

By Nancy Woo
For Miva Merchant

 

If there’s any silver lining to the downturn in the economy, it’s that new forms of creative enterprise are sprouting up all around, and sometimes in unexpected places. With the widespread interconnectivity of the Internet, aspiring entrepreneurs have more room than ever to find the right market for their product. The success and popularity of sites like Ebay and Amazon allow practically anyone with an Internet connection and a post office nearby to ship off items they don’t need anymore, like books or electronics, for easy cash.

But a trend is in motion right now that takes Internet business one step further – the art of turning a special hobby or skill into a lucrative online business. From microwaveable pillows to Santa mail to magazine purses, unique ideas abound that offer the world a product or service it hasn’t seen before. Don’t we all dream of having fun at work and doing what we love while also staying afloat financially? With unlimited opportunities in a worldwide marketplace, it’s more possible than ever with a bit of smart assessment and planning. Do you have a special hobby, collection or skill set that you are thinking about turning into a profitable home business? If you do, chances are someone somewhere will be interested.

First Thing’s First, What’s Your Idea?

So, do you have a rare collection of vintage staplers? An uncanny ability to weave baskets out of newspaper? Perhaps you love to craft sculptures out of coins. Whatever your particular passion may be, the first question to ask yourself is, do you have something you think other people would want? Do you have something that hasn’t been done before? Or if it’s already being done, are you doing something better than others?

The real meat of this question is the research. You know what your special talent is. But what is out there in your market? And most importantly, do you have an idea that will sell? Of course, you’ll have to actually put it into practice to fully answer the question, but you won’t want to walk blindly into a risky endeavor. And let’s face it, trying to sell taxidermied lightshades – or something especially off-kilter – may not have the traction you hope for. So as excited as you may about an entrepreneurial opportunity, make sure to take the time to think ahead.

The mindset to move away from is from centering on your personal fulfillment from your hobby, and into thinking about what sort of fulfillment your customers might reap. Will it delight them and amuse them? Make their lives easier and more convenient? Give them an option they’ve never thought of before? To turn your hobby into a business, of course you’re going to love what you do, but you want to make sure your customers will, too. And if you have a specialty product, chances are you are looking at a niche market. When setting up your business plan, do some quality research on what’s already out there, and how your product might fit in.

You might want to ask yourself these additional questions:

    • Are you truly skilled enough at your hobby to produce quality consistently?
  • Do you have the dedication to continue producing even when it’s not just for fun anymore?
  • Do you plan on making this part-time or full-time?
  • How popular or in demand is your hobby?
  • Is your audience the type that will pay for your product?
  • What kind of revenue can you realistically generate?
  • How will you stand out?
  • What kind of business plan will you create?

 

This last point is very important, though won’t be covered in detail here. Starting an online business out of a hobby, even if it is on the side, is no different from starting a brick-and-mortar business, in the sense that a business plan is necessary for steering in a smart direction. If you are going to put any money into your entrepreneurial endeavor, you will want a plan of action for eventual returns.

Learn From Those Who Have Already Done It

One of the best ways to learn a new skill, like marketing bulletin boards in the shape of fruits, for example, is to learn from those who have already experienced success. Here are a few success stories of the contemporary Internet age:

  1. Microwaveable Pillows: Kim Lavine, author of Mommy Millionaire: How I Turned My Kitchen Table Idea into a Million Dollars and How You Can, Too! didn’t just pull her title from thin air. In 2001, when her husband lost her job, she was struck with the idea to start selling a special hobby of hers: pillows with corn filling that can be microwaved for a delightfully relaxing headrest. Initially, she created them as gifts for her kid’s teachers, but with smart planning and incremental growth (from selling them in trucks to malls, then mall kiosks, then major department stores) she turned her side passion into a million dollar business.
  2. Santa Mail: This success story is an example of how great ideas are sometimes hiding in plain sight. Of course, Santa is a much beloved icon for many children during the holidays, and one company, Santa Mail, which only identifies themselves as “Santa’s helpers,” decided to take a well-established idea and do something that hadn’t been done before. In 2002, Santa Mail started offering personalized letters from Santa (genuinely postmarked from the North Pole) for just under $10. They’re still in business today, delighting children and satisfying their bottom line.
  3. Recycled Bags: Using recycled materials for everyday items is a huge hit these days. Alchemy Goods, started by Eli Reich after his messenger bag was stolen and he decided to make a new one himself out of recycled plastic, is now a successful company whose products are sold in many stores across the country. The secret to success for a market that already exists, like this one, is to understand what makes it appealing to people, and craft products uniquely your own that will fit the model while also offering something new. The great thing about recycled products is that it’s the idea behind the product that people want to buy, so just because it’s already been done doesn’t mean there’s no opportunity to get in.

Where And How To Sell Online

In this changing economy that is q   uickly transitioning into virtual predominance, the opportunities for selling online may at first seem boggling or overwhelming. It’s a sort of double-edged sword because while the Internet provides boundless avenues for expression, it can also act like a labyrinth for your customers if they can’t find you. So, whether or not you are familiar with the big players like eBay and Amazon, in this day and age, you will want to have your own website, social media presence and shopping cart software to host your products. Here is an overview of the process to building your web presence after you have solidified your unique idea:

    1. Claim Your Space: Purchasing a domain is relatively easy, so after the necessary product development phase and branding, you’ll want to claim your particular corner of the Internet where you can set up shop. Again, research here is crucial because you’ll want to choose a domain that is simple and easy to remember while descriptive of your product, but not too generic that it will get lost amid the others that are similar. In this phase, it might be wise to consult with a creative agency or online marketing agency to make sure you are heading in the right direction. If you are starting at the bare minimum, consider starting a free WordPress account to test the waters.
  • Web Design: Technology is moving forward, not backwards, so it’s especially important to be savvy about your web design. Even though it may not seem like the most important part of your business – your hobby is the piece of genius, right? – poor web design can drastically impact your image. It will be worth spending a little extra time and money to create a website that will really draw people in. The modern web user has a short attention span, so even if you can’t go ultra fancy, just make sure it’s clear and easy to navigate with no broken links.
  • Shopping Cart Software: For any online business, especially those that are built from the ground up, the shopping cart platform is the bread and butter of your success. You are doing the work of crafting your unique idea and producing something people want to buy, but it’s critical to make sure once you’ve wowed them with your talent, they can definitely buy it. No grocery store would function without a seamless line of check-out stands, and no entrepreneurial website should be without a shopping cart. There are various options, like opting for a hosted shopping cart or even building your own, but don’t get lured in by the seemingly convenient option of just redirecting to Amazon or another big seller. If you want to do it right, you’ll want to own the entire process from creation to shipping, and implementing your own shopping cart is key to building your business.

 

How To Get The Word Out

Okay, so if you’ve gone through all the work of crafting your idea, doing market research, starting production and building you website, it’s time to start marketing. It may take a little while to build up steam and attention for your niche product, so don’t worry about starting too early. Explore all avenues of marketing, like traditional advertising if you can afford it, word of mouth, social media, Internet marketing, online ads and specialized forums. Here are some tips:

    1. Social Media: No online business that wants to be taken seriously lacks a social media presence. Social media has become a staple of marketing schemes everywhere, so expect that you will start a Facebook account, a Twitter, and perhaps even a Tumblr or a Pinterest. Just creating an account is only the first step; being strategically active is even more important. Post interesting things related to your business, follow or friend similar businesses or people with your interests, and start conversations amongst potential customers.
  • Word of Mouth: If you’re starting a specialized business, it’s likely you already know a few people interested in your design or who are already working in similar markets. Reach out to them, and ask them to share with their friends. If you really have a great idea, people will want to talk about it and revel in the novelty. This is a great way to build up a network.
  • Online Ads: Facebook has space for ads that don’t cost much and target the demographics you are looking for. Paying for banners on websites with a similar topic of interest is another relatively affordable way to get the word out to safpeople. Since you are specializing, blanket marketing is probably not your best option. Instead, know where potential customers browse the web, and strategically place logos or links there. If you have a very specific audience, say numismatics, know which websites are popular and try to establish your presence there. For a niche product, it’s better to be well-received by a small population than shooting blanks at the entire field of the Internet.

 

If you have a great idea or a special hobby you think would benefit others, that’s truly exciting! Right now is a perfect time for creative growth and trying new ways of doing things. It may be counter-intuitive to start a small business during economic sluggishness, but in fact it could be the best time to stoke that entrepreneurial spirit. There may be much more to gain than to lose. You still won’t want to jump in blindly, but if you think through your options, your time availability, your start-up capital, your motivation and your market, why not take the chance to share what you love with the world and have fun doing it? If it truly is a great idea and it is well planned, you’re sure to be well received.

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