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Area entrepreneurs turn hobbies into business opportunities

By ALLISON MILES
June 2, 2010 at 1:02 a.m.

A balloon graduate wearing a cap and gown stands greeting customers in the entrance of Balloon Banquet.

HOBBY OR BUSINESS?

Are you enjoying a hobby or running a business? Sometimes dividing lines become hazy.

The IRS offers eight questions to ask yourself to help determine whether your crocheted items, scrapbooks or other homemade projects qualify as a hobby or business:

Is the purpose to make a profit?

An activity is typically considered a business if it carries a reasonable expectation of bringing a profit.

Is the activity just for fun?

Hobbies are things people do that are not pursued for profit.

Do you depend on income from the activity?

If so, it's likely considered a business.

Have you changed the way you operate to improve profitability?

If so, it might be a business.

Do you have the knowledge necessary to continue the activity as a successful business?

Those who do hobbies just for fun often don't have the business knowledge to turn their not-for-profit activity into a profitable venture.

Have you made a profit on similar activities in the past?

This may indicate it's a business and not a not-for-profit hobby.

Will the activity make a profit in some years?

Even if it doesn't bring profit every year, it might still be considered a business.

Do you expect to make a profit in the future from the appreciation of assets used in the activity?

If so, it may be a business, rather than a hobby.

Source: www.irs.gov

As Harvey MacKay once said, "Find something you love to do, and you'll never have to work a day in your life."

While a nice sentiment, that's often easier said than done.

Not everyone can find a career that caters to their love of sewing, painting or the like, but that doesn't mean it's a lost cause.

Here are three stories of entrepreneurs who took matters into their own hands and developed businesses out of their hobbies.

Clowning around full-time

It was a workshop that led Christine Swanson to a world of balloons and Bozos. Today, she owns Balloon Banquet/Crossroads Clowns but, years ago, she spent her days as a 9-1-1 dispatcher.

About 12 years ago, someone approached her with word about a Victoria Fire Department Life Savers Clowns seminar and she took him up on the offer.

"I went and I loved it," she said, explaining that's when she created her first character, "Deputy Dottie." "It was just so much fun."

As time progressed, she continued her new-found hobby, learning to make balloon animals and entertaining children, all while holding down another job. She began to focus solely on balloon sculptures and clowning once her schedule became too jam-packed to keep up with both.

Her business officially opened Jan. 10, 2008.

The move was a good step for Swanson, who said she'd always wanted to work for herself. Now she is her own boss, she said, and she gets to engage her creative side.

In her years in business, she's created everything from balloon sea horses to a balloon sculpture toilet for a plumber's retirement party. Her next big challenge? A sewing machine.

"Balloons are my medium," she said, explaining it sometimes takes days to determine how to construct a sculpture. "Some artists use paint, others use clay. I use balloons."

The company now includes wedding invitations, flower arrangements and decorating services, Swanson said, and she hopes to see things continue on for a long time, until it isn't fun any more.

She offered advice for others looking to strike out on their own.

"Don't give up," Swanson said. "Don't let speed bumps in the road - and there will be some - stop you. Go right over them."

A workshop for wooden writing tools

Van Dusen Jr.'s business was 20 years in the making.

The Minneapolis, Minn., native worked in a lumber yard for about two decades before deciding it was finally time to retire. But he knew he needed something to keep him busy.

"At the lumber yard, I learned about the beauty of woods," he said. "And I knew I wanted to make something unique."

Thus Van's Wood Turned Writing Instruments Inc. got its start.

Dusen works in a home workshop, transforming blocks of wood into pens, pencils and the like. It takes about 2- hours from start to finish, he said, explaining the process involves drilling the wood, turning it, sanding it, applying seven coats of finish and assembling the piece.

"In other words, I do the whole enchilada thing," he said, smiling.

His writing utensils now come in varieties as unique as the woods they're carved from.

From double-ended pens - one end writes in blue, the other red - to pencils and even one that switches between a pen and a stylus, he offers a bit of everything.

"I can make anything you want," he said, adding he prefers woods with slight imperfections, since they add character. "No two are alike."

Dusen's creations range from $25 to $60, depending on the design and wood, and are available in a variety of local shops, he said. People can also order them directly through him.

The time in the workshop is therapeutic, and he enjoys seeing his new creations, but Dusen admitted it carries other advantages, too.

"I hate 'Dancing With the Stars,'" he said, explaining it gives him a place to go when nothing's on TV.

Dusen's business has seen slight changes over time - he recently added bottle stoppers, key rings and magnets, for instance - but he said he doesn't expect to add much more to the mix.

He will, however, continue creating his pens and pencils.

"This is just something I love to do," he said. "I wanted to do something creative, something beautiful."

From school books to scrapbooks

Sherry Mayfield opened up shop about four years ago, but it wasn't her idea. She credits it to her daughter, Lindy Mayfield, then a senior at Texas A&M University.

The younger Mayfield had several goals in place, and one was to start a business, she said. The original idea was to create a shop in College Station geared toward sorority girls.

After deciding against that, Lindy Mayfield drew inspiration from something her mom began six months earlier: scrapbooking.

"There wasn't anything like that around here, so she started doing some research," Mayfield explained.

She researched real estate, developed a business plan and searched for supplies.

"We kind of combined her ambition to get into the business world with something I enjoyed doing," Mayfield said. "And, four years later, here we are."

Today, the shop offers embellishments, patterned papers and other tools of the trade.

Crystal Elliot, a store employee and long-time scrapbooker, said it helps to work in a field you enjoy.

The day goes by quickly, and it helps with customer service.

"We've had girls work here before who didn't scrapbook, and it's hard to teach them how to use things," she said. "But I give customers my honest opinions about what products I like, what I don't and why."

The journey to opening the business was exciting, but came with obstacles, Mayfield said. Any job has its stresses, she said, and this is no different.

She worked as an English teacher before the career change so, while she knew plenty about books and how to arrange a bulletin board, business wasn't her forte. Her daughter-in-law, Sheri Mayfield, stepped in to help with the business angle.

Mayfield said she'd recommend other potential business owners to also find help.

More than anything, she advised people to make sure the business they start is something they enjoy.

"It's tons of long hours, but helps if it's something you love," she said. "It's been a lot of fun."

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