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