When Hannah Dale was made redundant at the start of the 2007 financial crisis she was three months pregnant. “I had little money, my mother was diagnosed with cancer and soon I had a baby to look after,” she says. Her hobby, watercolour painting, gave her a much-needed feeling of release. “I could switch off my brain when I painted. It was therapeutic and relaxing.”
She started selling her paintings to local shops in Lincolnshire, but discovered she was earning the equivalent of £1 an hour after costs and commissions. Then she realised she could make a lot more money if she printed her designs on greetings cards. “That was a lightbulb moment for me because it was scalable.”
Ten years later, her watercolours of animals and birds have been printed on everything from stationery and tableware to wallpaper and cushions. Her business, Wrendale Designs, turns over £3m a year and employs 20 people. “I’ve achieved the holy grail of making a living from a hobby, but it wasn’t easy,” she says. “There were times at craft fairs when I sold one thing all day. It would have been easier to get a job, but I was determined.”
Research for Guardian Money by the Start Up Loans Company and YouGov suggests 28% of British adults have considered turning their hobby into a business. But less than a third have actually gone on to try, the poll of more than 4,000 people found. There is good news, however, for those who take the plunge: 86% of those surveyed who had started a hobby-based business said it gave them greater job satisfaction.
Other research by Axa, however, revealed that the majority (60%) of people who developed their business from a hobby in the past three years didn’t earn enough to do it full time. The research also calculated that the average income from a hobbyist’s startup was £762, compared with an average monthly figure of £1,113 from other businesses set up in the past three years. So how do people do it? We spoke to a number of hobbyists-turned-earners for their stories.
“You have to have commitment, belief and obstinacy to keep going,” says photographer Peter Searight, who spent many years taking photographs before deciding to pursue it as a career. “Being afraid of failure can often hold talented people back.”
His break came when a friend asked him to exhibit a selection of his landscapes at the Battersea Contemporary Arts Fair in 2004. “The feedback was really positive and the organiser said ‘You should do this full time’.” Getting his first sale made all the difference. “It validated what I do as an artist and instilled in me a sense of confidence and motivation.”
Although he could see there was a demand for his fine art landscapes, he knew that to run a profitable photography business he needed to cover weddings, portraits and events. So he decided to attend professional photography courses. “These helped strengthen my skills and hone my style.”
Now he runs the Remarkable Studio in Surrey and has won multiple awards for his landscapes and portraits, which have been exhibited all over the UK. “No two days are the same. One day, I might be at a wedding. The next I’ll be in the studio editing a fine art print. The variety keeps the job interesting. I also feel dedicated and productive because I love what I do.”
The consumer warrior
Helen Dewdney, aka The Complaining Cow, has turned her “hobby” of complaining into a successful career. In 2012, after 30 years of helping friends and family seek redress for their complaints, she started a blog to share her stories. By 2014 it had become so popular that she decided to self-publish a book, How to Complain: The Essential Consumer Guide to Getting Refunds, Redress and Results. It got five-star reviews on Amazon and was a bestseller, she says. “Once I wrote the book it showed I had authority in my field and other offers came in.”
Now she works full time as a consumer champion, appearing regularly on radio and TV programmes. She used to do this for free, but then started charging a fee. “A key moment was when I realised that to get more paid work I was going to need help, so I approached an agent, Cloud9 Management, which took me on.”
John White gave up a full-time job as an NHS nurse to set up We Run, which provides professional running coaches to recreational runners across the UK. “When I was a nurse, running was my way of keeping fit and switching off,” he says. “I was not a talented runner and although I loved it, it wasn’t something I gave much thought to.” Then he met a friend of a friend who was a coach. “He examined my running technique and made improvements to my warm-up and cool-down routines. The experience was transformative for my running.”
He improved so much he became evangelistic about coaching and set up We Run in his spare time. “The first year the business only turned over a few thousand pounds,” White says. “What kept me going was client feedback – they got so much value from the service it was like hearing my own voice.”
In 2015, We Run was selected as the official training provider for Cancer Research’s Race for Life marathon, which boosted its profile. “Things began to grow steadily from there,” says White. He now has 120 coaches on the books and says he has helped thousands improve their running. “I count myself fortunate to have turned a passion into a successful business.”
Andy Mulligan, author of Trash and winner of the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, feels equally lucky. He wrote several novels in his spare time while working as a secondary school English teacher, but never tried to get them published for fear of rejection. One day he decided to tell a rowdy class one of his stories to calm them down. Unbeknown to him, one of his pupils was the son of a literary agent. “So much of it was down to luck,” Mulligan says. “I took no practical steps to get my work published until that 13-year-old boy suggested I send my story to his mother.” The agent, Jane Turnbull, liked it but didn’t accept it straightaway. “She gave me some tips and told me she’d like to read it again in six months’ time.”
Having a deadline and a sense that somebody was taking his work seriously transformed his attitude to writing, Mulligan says. “I worked hard on that novel, which later became Ribblestrop. I learned that if you want to succeed as a writer, you have to be resilient and able to take criticism.”
He sold that book for £10,000, but it wasn’t until he wrote Trash four years later that he was able to give up his teaching job. Trash, a thriller about street kids living on a dumpsite in the developing world, was made into a Bafta-nominated film of the same name, directed by Stephen Daldry and starring Rooney Mara and Martin Sheen. It was released in the UK in 2015.
Mulligan is looking forward to the publication of Dog, his eighth children’s novel, on 26 October. “I love the autonomy I have – I can follow my whims and write what I want. But I am still waiting for someone to tell me it’s all been some kind of fairytale fantasy.”
• Once you start making money from a hobby, you must register for self-assessment or face interest and penalties from HM Revenue & Customs. The annual deadline is 5 October, which means that if you first turned your hobby into an income stream during the last tax year (2016-17), you only have a few days left, warns Chas Roy-Chowdhury, spokesman for ACCA, the global body for professional accountants.
• Since 6 April 2017 you can earn up to £1,000 in a tax year from a trade without paying any income tax, on top of your personal allowance. “The relief applies automatically, so a tax return is not required,” says Helen Thornley, spokeswoman for the Association of Taxation Technicians. “It is intended to be simple and should work well for those who are employed and have a small business on the side.”
• Take professional advice before you incorporate or register for VAT. “There are compliance obligations so don’t do it lightly,” says Roy-Chowdhury.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
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