The Moment These 7 Entrepreneurs Turned Their Hobby Into a Business

Turn a hobby into a business — read about the moment when these seven entrepreneurs decided to flip that switch.
Caroline Goldstein
By Caroline Goldstein 
Edited by Robert Beaupre

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There are plenty of reasons to want to start your own business: more flexible hours, financial independence, room for growth… the list goes on. But what if your motivation is less practical? What if you simply want to transform a longtime passion into a rewarding career?

Read on to learn how these seven entrepreneurs turned their hobbies into full-time jobs — and about the moment they decided to flip that switch.

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1. The beer enthusiast

While other 60-somethings might begin thinking about retirement, at 62, Paul Allen was gearing up to make the biggest career move of his life. Frustrated by the lack of job prospects for an industrial engineer, he decided to step up a longtime hobby: making beer, wine and mead at home.

“Luckily, my beloved wife [Betsey Dahlberg] was having similar employment issues as a lawyer,” Allen says. Together, they founded Hope Springs Distillery, creating small batches of high-quality alcoholic spirits (vodka, gin and absinthe so far) in their small town of Lilburn, Georgia.

Allen says his wife’s legal expertise comes in handy in the distillery business, which he refers to as “the most regulated industry on the planet.” Dahlberg handles all legal, business licensing and reporting tasks, while Allen manages the equipment and production process himself. “We’ve learned to work and play well together,” he says, of having his spouse as a business partner.

Now, five years after launching their business, Allen feels grateful for the change of pace. “It’s all been a hyper, light-speed blur. There’s something incredibly addictive about making a product yourself, [and] watching others buy it and tell you how much they like it.”

And while he hasn’t looked back, he warns against those who might be tempted by the romance of opening their own distillery: “[It’s] definitely not for the faint of heart.”

What you can learn

  • It’s never too late. If you think you’re too old to start a business, think again. Allen proves that it’s never too late in life to make a career pivot, especially when it involves a passion.

  • Ask for help. Starting a business is hard on your own. Enlist friends and family to share their expertise, or as in Allen’s case, consider drafting a loved one to be your business partner.

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2. The dog lover

Lazhar Ichir is the founder of Breeding Business, an educational platform for responsible dog breeders.

“As a young boy, I was always surrounded by dogs,” he says, but when he moved to London in adulthood, becoming a dog owner felt out of reach. “How long was I going to stay there? It was hard to make any sort of commitment such as owning a dog.”

Disenchanted with his nine-to-five and seeking a new challenge, Ichir drew from his lifelong passion for dogs, building an online resource to guide breeders through the process. He provides them with free content and some paid upgrades, as well as software for running their businesses.

“While searching for a specific niche I could address, breeding was the one in which I thought I could help the most,” he explained. “I knew ethical breeders already, and there was a lot of work to do with the new generation breeding ‘designer’ dogs.”

But, as is often the case when starting a business, things weren’t always easy for Ichir. “The first year, I was writing a lot of content, outreaching a lot, but nothing came my way,” Ichir says. “I cut my expenses to a minimum since there was not a single dime coming in for a few months.”

Eventually, his hard work paid off, but not without ongoing challenges. “The worst part of running a small business is the solitude,” he says. “We work so hard to build something, and we lack the time to socialize and stay in touch with the people that matter.”

His advice to entrepreneurs is to keep going, work hard and remain in contact with dear friends. Those are the people you’ll want by your side throughout the highs and lows.

What you can learn

  • Find your niche. Once you’ve committed to building a business from your passion, take a closer look at the industry and identify any gaps. What seems to be missing? How will you serve an existing consumer need?

  • Keep in touch. A good support system is everything. Like Ichir says, the early stages of starting a business can be draining and lonely, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Make the journey more bearable with good friends by your side.

3. The crafty cook

For Sara Gotch, the desire to start Gnarly Pepper, her custom spice blend company, went beyond her love for cooking. She also wanted to indulge another passion: travel.

“I decided at sunset at the Sun Cliff Resort in Thailand in 2015,” Gotch recalls of the moment she vowed to quit her job and become her own boss. “Best decision I’ve ever made.”

Once she returned home, the idea for Gnarly Pepper came to her while in the kitchen one day. She loved chicken and tuna salads, but hated how they were always drenched in calorie-laden mayonnaise. Instead, she began to experiment with plain Greek yogurt and spice blends, seeking healthy alternatives for traditional dips and condiments.

In the last year and a half alone, Gotch has taken her spices from three grocery stores to a whopping 26, landing in a total of 43 stores. She’s also gained the interest of a distribution company.

When asked if she had any advice for aspiring or new entrepreneurs, Gotch offered two pointers: say yes to new opportunities and set mini goals for yourself.

“Climb the mountain or sprint out your frustrations,” she says, “because once you accomplish the mini goals — the larger ones don’t seem as scary.”



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What you can learn

  • Always say yes. Gotch credits much of her company’s initial success to her willingness to step beyond her comfort zone. For her, this meant speaking to large crowds and showing up to networking events. “After my first year, a lot of opportunities opened up just by searching, asking and finding,” she says. “In the long run, people invest in you, not just the product.”

  • Set mini goals. If you’re feeling defeated or tired, remember that starting a business is a huge endeavor. To keep herself motivated and on track, Gotch creates smaller, more manageable benchmarks, which allow her to celebrate even the littlest wins.

4. The family photographer

Jen Allison has been hiding behind cameras since she was a kid, but it took two life-changing experiences for her to actualize a dream of becoming a full-time photographer.

When her father passed away in 2010, she was inspired to quit her job and launch her business, Jen Allison Photography, which specializes in authentic, candid family and brand photos. Years later, her personal mission changed once more, when her son Jack was diagnosed with a congenital heart disease.

“My son basically has what I call a ‘Mighty Heart’ that’s supercharged and can run into a race condition that spikes his heart rate,” Allison explains. “I was inspired to create a branch of my current business that gives back and has much more meaning.”

Through her new initiative, Project Mighty Hearts, Allison documents the experiences of families with children suffering from congenital heart diseases. Now, for every family photography session she sells, she gifts a session to one of these families.

“[One of the] greatest challenges of starting my own business is learning to trust the ebbs and flows of entrepreneurship,” she says. “Sales will come and go, so I need to continue to trust my abilities… and know that the work will come, as long as I continue to stay true to what I believe in.”

What you can learn

  • Be genuine. Authenticity has always been a key component to Allison’s photography. Now, she applies that value to her business strategy, offering this advice to fellow entrepreneurs: “Don’t compare yourself to others. Stay authentic and true, and serve your clients beyond what they are expecting.”

  • Follow your heart. Even more powerful than transitioning a hobby into a full-time job? Finding a way to give back to a cause that’s close to your heart. Allison’s latest initiative has given her company a philanthropic dimension, taking her passion project to another level.

5. The music geek

“Growing up, I was a huge music geek,” said Rob Janicke, founder and co-owner of SoundEvolution Music, an independent record label based in Staten Island, New York.

Janicke pursued a career in sales for 20 years — running his own music blog as a passion project — before starting the label with musician and longtime friend, Mike Pellegrino. They currently release music on both vinyl and digital formats for independent artists in New York, Chicago and Montreal.

Why the need for such a major life shift? Janicke cites his unhappiness at work and devotion to his kids.

“I’m a child of divorce, and I viewed work as something you had to do,” he explains. “Liking it wasn’t a requirement.” He vowed to set a different example once he had kids of his own. “I wanted to prove to them that you can follow your dreams and do whatever you like, as long as you believe in yourself and work harder than anyone else.”

Then, three years ago, inspiration struck with the passing of musical icon David Bowie. “That night, I was watching old Bowie clips on YouTube and came across a young, female singer who covered the Bowie classic ‘Life on Mars,’” Janicke says. That singer was Hayley Richman, who became the first of five artists to be signed with SoundEvolution.

Janicke admits that he is still finding his way in the music business, despite being an avid fan and having surrounded himself with musicians for his entire life. “I learn a ton every day,” he says. “I make sure to read, ask questions and get advice from some mentors I’ve developed along the way.”

What you can learn

  • Start small. If you aren’t sure about taking the plunge to turn your hobby into a business, consider making it your side hustle first. Once Janicke became more invested in his music blog, he could see music as a viable career path.

  • Embrace the unknown. Janicke’s biggest advice for new business owners is to set aside fear and lean into weaknesses. “Understand that you won’t know what you’re doing for a very long time,” he says, “and once you do know what you’re doing, start learning faster because you can never learn too much.”

6. The art collector

Jeremy Larner is the founder and president of JKL Worldwide, a full-service fine arts consultancy that was born out of his hobby and passion for art collecting.

“The inspiration for starting my own business was, quite plainly, I wanted to be my own boss,” Larner says. “I felt that the only real way to have security in an uncertain economy was to take my financial and economic future into my own hands.”

Larner was previously the manager and business partner of Rob Dyrdek, a multi-hyphenate celebrity best known for his professional skateboarding career and reality television work.

“I always loved art and as soon as I could afford it, I started to buy and collect paintings from artists who inspired me,” Larner says. “At first I simply bought what I loved, but once I started to learn about the art market, my purchasing decisions became more investment-driven.”

The now-established consulting firm offers art procurement and investment strategies for clients, but Larner is quick to point out that it took time to build that client list. He spent the first year of his business developing new relationships — which proved to be especially difficult in the art world, where everyone is so interconnected.

“Networking is a powerful way of securing long-term and repeat business,” Larner says. “A small-business owner who is genuine, transparent and personable will go a long way when it comes to networking and fostering professional relationships.”

What you can learn

  • Build a network. In the first few years of his business, Larner focused his efforts on developing relationships in the art world. Not only did this include galleries, dealers and auction houses, but also financial partners, industry experts and mentors.

  • Dream big. There’s a reason why Larner named his company JKL Worldwide, not JKL National. Although he was relatively new to the industry, he felt confident in his ability to build a team of experts and offer world-class art consulting services.

7. The television fanatic

Georgette Blau had just moved to the Upper East Side in Manhattan when she discovered her new neighbors: George and Louise "Weezy" Jefferson. (That is, the deluxe apartment where TV sitcom "The Jeffersons" was filmed in the mid-70s.)

Eager to share the landmark with other pop culture fanatics, Blau formed her company On Location Tours, which now operates 10 television and movie location tours in New York and Boston.

Locals and tourists can now sign up to visit the hot spots of their most beloved fictional characters. On the "Sex and the City" tour, major highlights include visiting Carrie’s famous brownstone and her favorite bakery. There’s also a "When Harry Met Seinfeld" tour, which features 40+ iconic locations from TV shows and movies, all filmed uptown.

“The amount of media we have received, both traditional and online, has been amazing,” Blau says of her continued success. It seems her idea has caught on overseas, too. “We were the third TV and movie tour [company] in the world. There are now over 300.”

Blau admits to feeling overwhelmed at first, having a “hobby background” in lieu of traditional business experience. “The biggest challenge was fast growth,” she says, citing 2004 and 2008 as particularly tough years. (Both "Sex and the City" and "Friends" aired their final episodes in 2004.)

Her advice for new entrepreneurs? Staff up right away — even if that means hiring part-timers or interns at first. “It’s hard developing a business all by yourself.” Now, almost two decades later, Blau has a staff of over 40 employees, 20% of whom are full-time.

“I loved starting a business from my hobby,” she adds, “because after 19 years, I still love it and am still so passionate about it.”

What you can learn

  • Think outside the box. If your hobby doesn’t align with an existing profession, it might be time to get creative. When Blau first launched her tour company, it was one of the first of its kind. Now, she’s paving the way for a whole new generation of television and film junkies.

  • Hire strategically. Or, as Blau more simply puts it, staff up. In the early stages of any business, it’s crucial to have all hands on deck. And while it’s always a good idea to be tactful with your new hires, sometimes headcount is what matters most.

Next steps for making your hobby a career

There isn’t one single path for getting there, or a universal sign to let you know the timing is right — but when you’re ready to transition from enthusiast to entrepreneur, you’ll know. Keep in mind these tips from our seven business owners:

  • Stay authentic to your passion.

  • Find your niche within the industry.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

  • Set big and small goals for yourself.

  • Network, network, network.

Feeling inspired to take your hobby to the next level? Read our complete guide on how to write a business plan, then brush up on the basics of how to secure funding for your future business.

This article originally appeared on JustBusiness, a subsidiary of NerdWallet.

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