Craftworkers create their own new entrepreneurial class
Ask Faith McFluff what she does for a living and you'll likely hear, "I get paid to be awesome!"
That's a far cry from the way she felt about her last job in the hospitality business, an industry that swallowed up a large chunk of her young-adult life.
"It drove me nuts," says McFluff. "It was a very stressful work environment. And wearing a uniform everyday practically killed me."
McFluff, who lives in Cleveland's Asiatown neighborhood, is a member of today's burgeoning boho-entrepreneur class--creative-minded people who are leaving behind the 9-to-5 grind to pursue their passion of making things.
Blame it on the recession or chalk it up to a subculture of people who prefer vinyl records to MP3s, the trend toward independent creative entrepreneurship is real and rising.
"I think when things get really high-tech and glossy, there's always a swing back, with people going back to doing things by hand," explains Nicole McGee, of the Cleveland-based recycled art venture Plenty Underfoot
. "At a time when we can buy anything by simply pointing a phone in the right direction, it's nice to do the opposite, to use scissors and glue and make things completely by hand."
Recent Northern Michigan University
graduate Alyssa Diebolt
never considered a traditional career path; glass art has been her calling since the age of 14.
She says she was influenced by her father, a stained glass artist, and a tour of a colored sheet glass factory that they both attended.
"The possibilities with fused glass were incredibly interesting to me, so I got started," she says. "My father had already been doing stained glass from our home so we already had a glass studio set up in the garage. It was simple to add a few things, such as a kiln."
Learning to Fly
Folks like McFluff and Diebolt are by no means flying solo. According to a report released by MBO Partners titled "The State of Independence In America
," there is a large and growing number of independent workers in the U.S.
MBO, which supports the independent consulting sector, puts the current number at 16 million, but they expect that figure to balloon to 70 million--more than half the private workforce--by 2020.
It's easy to assume many of these people have been pushed out of their nests and into these less-than-typical jobs by a lackluster economy. But that is not the case for more than half of them, according to the same study, which says 55 percent made a proactive decision to go solo.
Like a recovering alcoholic recalling his or her last drink, Faith McFluff recites the events of her last day of work with clarity. It was five years ago.
"I told my boss that every day was starting to feel like Groundhog Day, and that I can't stand coming in," she recalls. She gave her notice on the spot.
A seamstress since childhood, McFluff has always felt comfortable on this side of a sewing machine. But it wasn't until she attended her first music festival that she discovered a market for handmade clothing. Before long, she had hopped aboard the festival circuit full-time, selling her own creations. Her specialty, Bohemian costumes made from recycled clothing
, fit the artistic-minded audience like a glove.
In order to follow through on making your dream a reality, Diebolt says a solid support system is necessary.
"Give it a try, and make sure you have a strong, honest support system. Having people in your life that will support you is great, but they also shouldn't be the types of people who won't tell you if something is a bad idea," she says.
Follow Your Bliss
Something magical happens when person and passion collide. Scientists talk about the release of endorphins, when feelings of euphoria kick in and all else fades away. When we are truly immersed in the task at hand, little else seems to matter. That might explain why almost 80 percent of independent workers report being "highly satisfied."
"When I get in the studio, I'm immediately back in kindergarten art class," says Laura Nelli, founder of Minneapolis-based Nelle & Harold
, a handmade handbag company. "The actual making of the product is a huge relaxation experience for me."
Nelli graduated in 2002 with a communications degree, and when she couldn't find a job, she decided to make one. Today, she runs a thriving little boutique, and her made-to-order clutches have been featured in almost every glossy fashion magazine at the newsstand.
"I grew up in the rural Northwoods of Wisconsin with a mom and dad who ingrained in me that if you want to do something, just do it," she adds. "I'm an entrepreneur; I was born to be one."
Like many within this boho-entrepreneur class, Raven Toney
's journey to occupational bliss is one that seems logical only in hindsight. Easy on the eyes, Toney began snagging modeling gigs in his early 20s. He ultimately settled in New York City, where he launched a high-end event-planning firm that indulged the hedonistic whims of A-listers like Donna Karan, Versace and Calvin Klein.
"Along with those kinds of clients come a lot of demands," says Toney. "It got to be way too much. I was making a lot of money but I wasn't as happy anymore."
Toney ditched it all--including the embarrassingly large paychecks--to apprentice with a cabinet maker in Los Angeles. These days, he makes fine furniture from his Cleveland shop.
"My favorite thing in the entire world is working in my shop all by myself," he says. "I don't even have the radio on. I'm completely engrossed in the work."
As an event planner, he juggled a frenetic web of loose ends that resulted in a nonessential event lasting mere hours. As a furniture maker, Toney dedicates his time to well-made objects with an indefinite shelf life.
"I guarantee you that if I made it, it will be here for 100 years," he says of his pieces.
Diebolt says she is "in too deep" now to ever consider changing careers.
"It truly is a passion of mine. I love working with the glass, putting things together, firing it in my kiln and coming back the next day and opening the kiln, and sometimes, it's how I wanted it to turn out, and sometimes not so much," she says. "I have met so many people over the years that are so incredibly interesting. I'm also able to see artwork by some incredibly talented people all over the place."
With the support of her family, Diebolt says she now attends 20 shows a year, exhibiting her artwork throughout Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois.
But I'm Not Creative
We have a tendency to classify people as either creative or not. We look at the Mona Lisa--or an elaborate piece of fine jewelry--and we say, I could never do that. Maybe so, maybe not, but that doesn't mean one shouldn't try, says McGee.
"There is no wrong way to be creative," she says. "The more permission we give ourselves to play and explore, the more open we'll be to tapping into our own creativity. Lots of people are creative in ways they might not know."
McGee has built her business on creative reuse of products, including cereal boxes (stationery), vinyl flooring (permanent flowers), and pop bottles (centerpieces). Unlike many others who abandoned their "day jobs," McGee loved her previous career in the nonprofit world. It just didn't fulfill her.
"It was awesome, but I recognized I had a passion to be more creative," she explains.
She was fortunate enough to have the flexibility that allowed her to shift gradually from vocation to avocation, a strategy she highly recommends.
"Don't just leave your day job to go find yourself," she says. "I tell people you shouldn't take the leap until you have a few things already lined up."
That's how Keweenaw-based entrepreneur Ray Weglarz got his start making Ray's Polish Fire
hot sauce, as a side business in addition to full-time work.
Now, the specialty hot sauce hand-made by Weglarz and his partner, Vicki Jo, has doubled in sales every year for the past three years. Weglarz, a second-generation Pole, learned his way around the kitchen at a young age with his mom. He says she used simple ingredients and made great food without the use of cookbooks.
"Polish Fire is kind of a joke because Polish food is so bland; my mom's idea of salsa was grated beets and horseradish," he says. "But I love making sauces and dips of all kinds. Polish Fire contains all the herbs I've always reached for."
Customers now find his hot sauce at restaurants and food co-ops across the upper Midwest, and Weglarz makes his living from the product.
Juggling for Dollars
"I do more than one thing to make a living," explains Pittsburgh-based jeweler Audra Azoury
. While her Steel Town pieces, which are modeled after the bridges of her hometown, are taking off, the work isn't enough to cover all the bills.
"It's a really hard struggle," she admits. "There are a lot of people who say they're making a living doing this, but they also have rich husbands," she says with a laugh.
Azoury also works as a graphic designer, which pulls her out of the studio but into some much needed human interaction. As for which work gets finished first--well, money talks.
"I wish it was more organized than that. But the truth is, when a check comes in you drop other things to do the work," she says.
Philly-based Jennifer Hermann
traded in one jewelry-making job for another. The difference? Before, she was working for somebody else.
"I had no creative license," Hermann says of her job in a manufacturing shop. "Now I make what I want. Seeing other people happy about wanting my work and owning it, that keeps me going."
Of course, working for yourself means that you and you alone are responsible for generating all income.
"Staying motivated, making yourself get up every day to do the work, that is the hardest part," says Hermann. "Before, I got a paycheck every week no matter what. Now I have to really push myself. But the rewards are so much more meaningful because I'm setting it all up for myself."
And Then There are the Hands
Invariably, we must give something up in order to pursue our passion. Money might seem the obvious casualty--and almost without fail, creative entrepreneurs make less money--but to most, that hardly is a shortcoming.
"I was making tons of money--more money than a 20-year-old should," says McFluff. "I bought a shiny new convertible, I traveled to Europe. But I realized that I was buying stuff to try to find happiness. I learned that you can work less, earn less, and still maintain a level of happiness."
While McGee does occasionally find herself romanticizing the days of a steady paycheck, the lack of one has prompted positive changes she'd never abandon.
"When I was making more than I needed, I would buy more stuff than I needed," says McGee. "This life forces you to be more financially engaged in your life. To pay attention to revenue in and revenue out. It helps you to live simply."
Before leaving his job to devote all his time to Ray's Polish Fire two years ago, Weglarz was a registered nurse. He says the transition has been a financial hit, but that isn't what's important to him.
"After working with hundreds of dying people in hospice, I realize money is not that important to me. I love doing it; I have an interesting life now," he says.
And then there are the hands.
"My hands now look like my dad's, who was a coal miner," says Toney. "I doubt I'd get work as a model anymore with these hands."
Douglas Trattner is managing editor of Fresh Water in Cleveland. U.P. Second Wave writer Becky Greiner contributed with interviews. Tell us what you thought of the piece via email.
Photos of Laura Nelli and her clutches courtesy of Cadence Cornelius Photography.