Bootstrap Businesses: Painting, Cleaning and Crafting

Learn how to make money off of your hobby with the advice of MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers.


If you're the artistic type, learn how to make money from your hobby.


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Readers of MOTHER EARTH NEWS share their experiences with starting their own business and getting out from under "the man's" thumb.

Express Creativity With a Auto Painting Business

My husband Ralph and I decided we wanted to be more self-sufficient than was possible while working 9-to-5 jobs in a California city. So — a year ago — we packed up our baby boy and headed for rural Idaho. We'd been reading MOTHER EARTH NEWS for several years, and the article "How to Go to Work for Yourself" made self-employment seem a tantalizing (and feasible) prospect.

Ralph had nine years of experience with custom-painting motorcycles, cars and boats. Plus, he has a natural artistic talent, so we scouted the area in which we hoped to settle and found that (though there were many paint and body shops), no one was offering airbrush, pinstriping, lettering and gold leaf work. We decided that a custom paint business would be just the thing for us.

With an airbrush and some tools in our possession already, we sold our motorcycle and invested the $1,000 that the sale brought us in business cards and flyers. Then we purchased the air compressor, spray guns and paint that we needed to start our venture.

The first six (winter) months were lean. But, determined as we were not to be forced back into the old rut, we got together $300 and relocated our business from our garage to a building near the center of town. There we officially opened the doors of our shop.

Our endeavor's new home happened to be right next door to an established paint business with a spray booth. So, it seemed helpful to both concerns to swap our specialized work for the use of our business neighbor's booth. This, and other trades with paint and body shops in the area, allowed us to expand our capabilities and take jobs that we couldn't otherwise have tackled.

Though our business is seasonal and even varies from week to week (from as little as $50 to well over $1,000), the venture is now definitely off the ground.

Ralph loves incorporating his artwork into his livelihood, and the paperwork I do for the shop doesn't force me to labor full time, which means I can spend my spare hours playing with my child, gardening and engaging in the hobbies I love but have never had time for. And we're almost ready to buy some beautiful land!

Thank you, MOTHER EARTH NEWS, for giving us the inspiration we needed to get where we are today.

— Ralph & Debbie Finley, Eagle, Idaho

Become a Hobby Expert

In the four years since my husband Terry and I first borrowed three issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS from a friend, we've developed from city-dependent, bored, frustrated people into increasingly self-sufficient country folks — and the success of my bootstrap business has had a lot to do with that change.

I had seen articles on home typing businesses in MOTHER EARTH NEWS now and again, and they helped to get me going. But, my typing service is something a little different from most and was actually the offshoot of an earlier home business.

Back in 1979 — when we needed extra cash — I started to teach crocheting in our home. The venture was a success, too, but it got cut short when Terry and I moved to the Ozarks In the summer of 1980. No one would drive up our mountainous road just to attend a crochet class, so I decided to try a business that would combine my teaching ability and typing skill, and that I could conduct by mail.

I began by sending a note to the (free) readers' letters department of a crochet magazine, offering to break difficult patterns down into step-by-step instructions. The letter was published last April, and in the first month I cleared $140 (over and above the $4.00 I spent for typing paper and the $17.50 that went to repair my tired typewriter). By mid-June I'd earned $60 more, so I placed an ad in another crochet magazine (it cost me $18.60) to generate increased business.

Today, besides the fact that the demand for my written crochet instructions is still growing, I've started writing crocheted doll clothes patterns to be sold commercially. I've also been asked to design crocheted garments for dolls — and one of the crafts magazines has approached me about proofing its patterns before they go to press.

Business is so good, in fact, that I want to share the opportunity: I believe that the field has room for more people who can handle instructional language and a typewriter, as well as a crochet needle. (There also seems to be a real need for knitting experts who can perform a similar service.)

— Rita Neve, The Crochet Cabin

Start a Freelance Cleaning Service

Last January I found myself unemployed — along with a lot of other folks in Spokane. Before long, pounding the pavement had me pretty discouraged. That's when I turned to MOTHER EARTH NEWS for ideas and "You Can 'Clean Up' as a Freelance Housecleaner" gave me the perfect answer to my problems. You see, not only did I actually have experience working as a maid, but the article was even set right In my own town, which gave my morale a little extra boost.

I hesitated at first, though, simply because (being new to the area) I didn't have local references. However, a few quick calls to friends in California took care of that problem. I found that prospective customers were happy to phone out of state to get my references.

My initial outlay totaled just $15 for a one-week ad in the local newspaper. Though my first few accounts came in immediately, the competition was quite heavy. So, for a while I supplemented my income by working through a home health care service for the elderly. When my housemates noticed how much our own home brightened up, I was able to swap an afternoon's cleaning each week for a reduced share of the living expenses.

My new enterprise allowed me to be my own boss in a profession I enjoyed. I set my own hours, wore the clothes I was comfortable in and enjoyed the opportunity of visiting people in all walks of life from doctors and accountants in expensive homes to older folks in downtown apartments. Bus fare turned out to be my only continuing expense and many of my clients even reimbursed me for that small travel cost. Working only 20 hours a week, I netted an average of $75.

— Crissy Carey, Spokane, Washington

Make Crafts From "Junk"

I've always been partial to crafts that utilize free or nearly free materials. And, living in a suburban area (I'm not on a homestead yet), I've often marveled at what my friends and neighbors consider to be garbage. For example, hardly anyone here saves cornhusks, but I find them very useful.

I first foamed to make traditional cornhusk dolls from a book I checked out at the public library. It wasn't long before I filled the house to overflowing with charming little ladies, gents and youngsters. The dolls all assume different poses and have a variety of props. They're constructed entirely of cornhusks and cotton string. The tools that I make for them are crafted from wood scraps, fabric, wire and more husks ($10 to $15 will cover any and all materials I use for 30 to 40 dolls).

At any rate, when I picked up a few back issues of MOTHER at a used book sale, I was on my way! "Get Your Crafts Into Stores" gave me just the advice I needed and soon I was in the happy position of having more orders for my little people than I could fill. I charge $3.50 to $5.50 for each doll, and — since I can complete three to five of them in an evening — I'm able to bring in as much as $135 a week.

However, l now have another business as well: I teach my craft to scout troops, garden clubs, church youth groups and classes at recreation centers. Every student goes away from the classes with a cornhusk doll he or she has made and a new skill all for less than the cost of one of my creations. On the other hand, I earn $25 for each hour spent teaching, and sharing my methods has not reduced the demand for the dolls that I make. In fact, it has served to advertise my product and increase my sales.

— Linda Palter, Islip, N.Y.