During the last five years, a lot of students, readers and friends have asked for advice on how to leave the corporate world – and avoid starvation in the process. When I get asked this question, I take a deep breath. I hate to give advice because what worked for me might not work for you.
But after five years of this, I have learned a few little things that might help you if you ever dare to step to the edge and look down. I’m going to start with the philosophical stuff first and move into the practical stuff in a future post.
Focus on One Thing, But Not Really
I have a variety of semi-useful semi-developed skills – writing, editing, graphic design, teaching, photography, website building – that I’ve honed during my 47 years. And when I left my job in 2011 I decided to do all of those things to make money, but to make woodworking part of all of them.
So I write and edit freelance stories, but only about woodworking. All my website efforts are on woodworking sites only – no dog groomers or moss enthusiast sites. By tying all my skills up with a long wooden shaving, the work I do in one area (writing a woodworking book) helps feed the other areas (writing woodworking articles and teaching woodworking classes).
I’ve had lots of offers to work outside of woodworking – editing fiction novels, writing for encyclopedias, editing home-improvement websites – but I’ve always said “no” to those offers. Not because I am rich (I can always use the work) but because it’s not a good idea long-term.
Stools Need Three Legs
The corollary to the item above is that life is easier if you have more than one leg to stand on. If I only built custom furniture, I’d struggle a lot more. If I only wrote articles or just taught classes, ditto and ditto.
When I stopped teaching last year I had built up enough work that I’m surviving on writing, editing and building furniture. I do miss the income from teaching – don’t get me wrong – but because I had a lot of options, I didn’t need to take a job at Rockler to make ends meet.
Always Work; Never Work
This isn’t the first time I left a corporate job. In 1993 I left a cozy editing job to start my own political newspaper with a partner. I threw in the towel on that newspaper after a few years because my heart wasn’t in it, though my body was. I worked seven days a week. I slept under my desk at the newspaper. And I was miserable because politics was not (and still is not) my thing.
Today I work seven days a week. While my eyes are open, I am pretty much working on something. But I love what I do so much that my only regret is that I have to sleep at night.
It’s still work. Staring at the screen gives me a headache. Humping hundreds of pounds of wood my myself makes me sore at night. Dealing with manufacturing books and posters gives me a stomach ache.
But – and this is important – I’d do this even if it weren’t my job.
Lots of hobbyist woodworkers who have turned pro have told me that going pro ruined their woodworking hobby. My answer to this common statement is that woodworking isn’t a hobby. It should be an all-consuming obsession that frames your identity and existence (and has for many years). I started woodworking in earnest in 1993 and haven’t quit. I love it even more than when I started.
Try Not to Be a Hypocrite
During the last 20 years, I’ve talked business with a lot of professional woodworkers all over the world. A common gripe goes like this: People just don’t buy bespoke, quality furniture anymore.
And they are saying this while dressed entirely in imported clothes made in questionable manufacturing conditions, with a shop full of Harbor Freight Tools and a house filled with plastic disposable junk.
While none of us is perfect and pure, I try to use local small businesses for everything I can – such as printing, design, T-shirts and scanning. It costs a bit more, but it has opened up opportunities that have greatly expanded my business and what I’m capable of.
I wear clothes and shoes that are made domestically and designed to last. They don’t cost that much more, but you won’t find them at a Wal-Mart. And I buy my food from the local butcher and green-grocer – it’s actually cheaper and better.
And I like good tools.
If you aren’t willing to embrace a world of custom, well-made objects, then maybe you shouldn’t peddle them.
If the above is obvious and not-at-all helpful, I apologize. The second installment will deal with nitty-gritty stuff: utilities, insurance, marketing, taxes and getting paid.
— Christopher Schwarz
32 thoughts on “Cut the Cord, Part 1”
or moss enthusiast sites.
That was for you, Jess.
Bespoke is a word I hear more and more but we never used that word to describe woodworking in the past 45 years. It was always “custom made”. I suppose it is more elegant to say “bespoke” and it uses less letters.
Definition of bespoke
a : custom-made
b : dealing in or producing custom-made articles
Sometimes I like to use a fancy word so Megan Fitzpatrick will remember that I have a college degree.
Aren’t you funny. You’re a trained journalist…and I know it.
Eh, I think it’s just a reaction to the proliferation of non-custom work that is being described as “custom-made”. Kind of like how 10 years ago, restaurant menus used to be full of stuff described as “homemade” whether or not it was actually made in-house. Now they all use the term “house-made” if the product in question was actually made in-house. For some reason, I haven’t quite cozied up to the term “bespoke”. Sounds too hipster-ese to my ear.
Custom-made to me always means furniture built by a cabinet company with glossiest darkest poly finish on it.
Is there such a thing as bespoke bicycle wheels?
All very important points and well said. I would add on more: keep your overhead/monthly expenses low. Don’t start out with a large (expensive), beautiful (expensive), fully equipped (exspensive) shop. Only buy tools, wood, supplies, and beer when you need them. You will have more time than money so you can afford to make an extra trip to the lumber yard. When business is slow you can get by if the rent doesn’t require you to sell your first born. If you keep in mind all the suggestions that Chris makes and you don’t have a huge monthly nut weighing you down you can survive until the world discovers you beautiful work.
That will be covered in the second practical post.
Be sure to mention that one always needs the beer.
Good stuff! I never had to quit a corporate job, but did have to make similar choices when I quit building custom houses and moved into what I do now. It’s true about the obsession that frames our very identity and existence. I’m currently talking with a few bespoke shoe makers I know for another pair of handmade shoes. Mine are about worn out after 4 years brutal abuse and I paid $200 for them. Now that’s a great investment in my thinking. I’ve just bought a whole pig, pasture raised from a friend and settling in on a summer share with a local CSA for our vegetables. This stuff you mention hits home with me and I’m glad your saying it. I think there is a slow shift happening with the changing of the guard (genXer’s coming into their time) so to speak in regards to perspective, and ideals. Right on!
Maybe i shouldn’t be reading this from my soul sucking cubicle.
What shade of grey is yours? I think mine is called “despair”.
Chris, thank you for sharing your experience. I have always worked in the corporate world and have reached a point in time where I want to get away from it. I would love to create bespoke furniture for a living but I have a lot of questions relating to the business aspects. I realize there are books (Jim Toplin’s at Popular Woodworking for instance) that will give me all of the details but I am interested in your experience too.
I look forward to your next installment.
Wonder if I’ll live long enough to see articles about how to leave the free world and go work for a corporation.
Currently wearing domestically made boots, socks, and underwear; still room for improvement.
There are lots of great domestic makers out there.
Curious about what some of your favourite domestic makers are. Trying to make the transition to local/domestic for as much as possible, but I’m flying blind, even with Google’s help.
My wife and I are against buying local because around here that would be buying Monsanto. 😛
Maybe this is post 2 as well. But don’t ever burn bridges. You may miss with your first targeted goal but there maybe something near your target maybe the key. It has certainly worked for me.Some of the people I used to work with are my best customers.
I’m heading off in an hour or so to the bi-monthly Farmer’s Market, nearly in the centre of Australia’s largest city, to stock up on meat for the next few weeks. And some nice nuts from the Macadamia Lady – also available from Harrods in the UK. Yum.
Thank you for starting this series, Chris. Cutting the cord is a concept that has been looming large in my life for the past several years. I’ve got a rough plan in the works, but I welcome your insights on the subject.
Excellent and Thanks again Chris! And please don’t stop with part 2. I plan to open Schroeder’s Chair Shop & Brewing this December, and need ALL the help I can get.
Awesome possum! One thing I would add is to leave on your terms/principles and not to compromise on them. When I jumped ship a few years back, I was simply happy to be working locally and off the 63 mile (one way commute). I was not thinking “go slow, be prudent.” I was thinking, “I’m free!” As you say, everyone’s circumstances are different. I second that, and while I have no regrets with respect to my decision, in hindsight I can see where I mentally compromised too much with respect to overestimating business prospects, my partner, our collective vision, and overhead.
Life can’t be all work. There must be room for family and friends as well as room for other interests that keep life balanced. I left corporate 35 plus years ago and have a shop making bespoke products partially based on woodwork. I don’t think twice about putting a sign up that says “Gone to Grandaughter’s party” and walking out the door. My clients are used to that. Since I left corporate I have paddled my kayak 15,000 miles and spent 500 nights in a tent. I’d probably have more money and retired sooner if I’d have stayed corporate but would I still be alive? And would I have lived as well?
I think that you are a hypocrite once removed 😉
Unless civilization collapses and everyone lives at the level that people did two centuries ago, it’s not possible to truly live the bespoke lifestyle. You have the luxury of buying locally (community and nationally) because all those merchants have access to the modern infrastructure, just as you do to make your living. Peel back a few layers for any endeavor and I’m sure you’ll find some dependence on products or materials that come from questionable (your words) sources. That comes with living in the twenty first century.
I think it’s great to buy locally and buy American when possible. Just don’t say you’re not a hypocrite because you do so. I’m not sure what the appropriate emoticon is for this, but I wrote it as a philosophical counterpoint only; I enjoy your writings and products.
I see no hypocrisy. You make a classic strawman argument, innocently I give you, but fallacious nonetheless. Chris talks consistently of being deliberate and mindful about his own consumption which leads to a more satisfying, aesthetic and happy existence for himself and his family. Does his own satisfaction need to depend on where others place themselves in relation to the infrastructure? Nah. Further, I don’t think Chris is calling for the absolute obliteration of modern infrastructure in his own existence. That’s not even the most logical conclusion of his stated views. You, sir, exaggerate his position. I would refer you to the beginning portions of The Anarchist’s Tool Chest for a clearer view.
I stopped myself from replying to this post multiple times. Thank you kurtisjayjohnson for articulating my thoughts is a much kinder manner.
To say that no change should be made to reduce an evil just because some evil will persist after the change is a surefire ideology/method for perpetuating evil. Or an argument from someone who does not want to change, but wants to get rid of the guilt they feel from not changing.
Thanks for this. I really needed the inspiration today.
Hands down the truest statement I have ever read.
Lots of hobbyist woodworkers who have turned pro have told me that going pro ruined their woodworking hobby. My answer to this common statement is that woodworking isn’t a hobby. It should be an all-consuming obsession that frames your identity and existence (and has for many years).
I totally agree with you Chris, this field is a 7 days a week passion which can kick your ass at times. But I am too good at what I do to look anywhere else. I love what I do and it can be a struggle at times. Thanks for sharing.
You’re a Rock Star with a hand plane.
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