Saddle maker, Mark Nelson, in his home workshop in Boyceville, Wisc. — Sean McCormick

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Whether you’re looking for income or just a way to follow your passion, these paths can get you started

According to market researcher IDC, there will be 14 million full-time, home-based freelancers and independent contractors in America by 2015, up from 12 million in 2010. Between 2008 and 2011, the number of self-employed Americans from age 55 to 64 rose by 5 percent.

Mark Nelson is one of them.

When Nelson, 60, retired in 2007 after 30 years with the postal service, he spent about a year hunting, fishing and fussing with his horses and mules. “But you get to the point when you’ve done all the playing,” Nelson recalls. “You have to be productive.”
After an accident limited his work options, Nelson decided to turn his first love of leather crafting into an income stream.
“When I thought about what I would really love to do, that was it. I got the bug to make saddles, and not just any saddles,” says Nelson, who got his first crafting kit at age 13. His love is for the old western saddles of the 19th century, the heyday of the cowboy era from 1866 to 1899.
Nelson’s passion is historic re-enactment of cowboy action. He even helped start a Cowboy Action Shooting club. “I wanted to know how to make saddles for my own use, but realized that I had to make some money at it, too.”Nelson opened a tiny workshop on his 5-acre property in Boyceville, Wisc., and went on to buy equipment he needed. He also paid $5,000 tuition to spend six weeks in Montana learning how to make saddles.During the course, he made three saddles, one for himself and two he sold to team ropers in Montana. He was hooked. When he got home, he opened Way West Saddlery.

His custom-made saddles now start at $2,000 and take him about 40 hours or more to make. His primary clients are historic re-enactors and extreme cowboy competitors, who strive for the authentic costuming and saddles. He also builds custom western stock saddles fitted for an individual horse and his or her rider.

Nelson admits he’s not making a lot of money. His upfront material costs usually top $800 per saddle. While his business slowly ramps up, Nelson is logging in two-days a week as a caregiver at a nearby residential alcohol and drug addiction treatment center, earning $9.50 an hour.

Turning a hobby into paying work can ruin your passion for it, so you need to plan ahead and take it a step at a time. And if you need the income now, you might want to supplement your fledgling business with outside work initially, as Nelson has done.

There are plenty of great home-based jobs out there for you. Here are five popular ones to consider. Pay ranges, which will vary based on factors such as experience and where you live, are primarily derived from U.S. Department of Labor data.

Could you turn your craft hobby into a business? >>

1. CraftsThe nitty-gritty: It sounds divine. You carve out a workshop at home, and inspired by your inner creativity, you churn out high-quality, handcrafted items and make some money at the same time. More people are peddling their homemade wares online, at craft shows and flea markets. But to really build a business beyond pocket change, you need to push out of your comfort zone and peddle to the online marketplace. You can set up your own shop on the six-year-old website, which boasts over 11 million handcrafted items for sale, or you could set up your own e-commerce site. Etsy charges 20 cents to list an item and lops off 3.5 percent of your sale. FreeCraftFair is another online option. The downside: Managing your time so you don’t fall prey to burning the midnight oil.Median hourly pay: Varies widely. It’s possible to net a few hundred dollars a month in profit after you pay for your materials and figure your hourly wages. You can certainly boost that with a great product, super sales and lots of elbow grease. You’re probably not going to get rich, but it’s a fine way to earn money and love your job at the same time.

Qualifications: It’s hard to set the bar here. In general, a sense of design and artistic bent will get you noticed. But the intangible skills of self-motivation and discipline, combined with a unique product and some sales chutzpah is what will help you succeed. You should have a handle on bookkeeping, or hire someone part time to help with record keeping. The IRS will want to know what you’re up to, especially if you are selling online via credit cards.

Are you a self-starter with top-level expertise? >>

2. Project-Based ConsultantNitty-gritty: This requires top-level expertise and self-starter initiative. Most independent contractors work on a specific project for an intense period, then take time off for a several weeks or even months. Small and fast-growing companies looking for experienced employees who can tackle a range of duties are great sources of work. Drawback: slow payments at times, and projects that run longer than expected or don’t begin on schedule.
Median pay range: $20 to $70+ per hourQualifications: Your resume is your calling card. Consultants with a track-record in finance, management, healthcare and information technology are sought after. The trick to landing a project is tapping fearlessly into your professional network. Past employers are a good first stop when you’re looking for a consulting gig. Contact ex-colleagues and clients for help finding great opportunities. For leads, you might get involved with the local rotary or a regional small business association. If management consulting is your goal, consider joining the local chapter of the Institute of Management Consultants. Become a member of LinkedIn’s industry and networking groups in your field. Across the country, a number of franchise operators, with names like 10 til 2 and Mom Corps, cater to this niche. For executive-level, part-time consulting, you might contact a respected consulting firm such as Gerson Lehrman Group. To dole out advice for a variety of issues from starting a small business to career coaching, you might consider signing up with For less time-demanding positions, also books freelance workers.Are you a modern day Florence Nightengale? >>

3. Patient Advocate.Nitty-gritty: You’re in change of helping patients navigate the byzantine medical system. You can get to the bottom of billing mistakes and contest insurance-coverage rejections. At times, you might lend advice in making medical decisions, help find a specialist or hospital, go with patients to doctor appointments, coordinate multiple doctor care, and even pick-up prescriptions. Knowing how to fill out insurance forms, and even negotiate with docs for better rates might fall under your jurisdiction. Job opportunities range from working privately for one person or a couple to working on staff as an advocate at a local hospital, nursing home, rehab center and even an insurance company.Median pay range: $15 to 50 per hour on average, but $200+ an hour is possible if you have a strong health care background.

Qualifications: Community colleges and nonprofit organizations are developing training and certification programs to help more people tackle this post. Nurses, social workers, medical professionals and insurance experts are in high demand for these positions. But if you’ve steered your own exasperating path through the medical system, you might be the perfect person to take on this role, but take the time to add the necessary skills to get certified. No licenses are required to practice, but there are several credentialing programs. Contact the National Association of Healthcare Advocacy Consultants, a professional group in Berkeley, Calif., and the non-profit Patient Advocate Foundation for more information.

Do you have a large social network and a lot of get up and go? >>

4. Direct Sales
The nitty-gritty: Selling for a direct sales firm like Mary Kay, The Pampered Chef, Avon, Tupperware and Cutco can be lucrative and there are plenty of opportunities to do so. It’s not about going door-to-door ringing bells, anymore. You can market the goods straight from your home office via a computer, Internet access and a telephone. But it requires plenty of legwork and some start-up costs, usually $200 or less for a “starter” kit of training materials and products. Legitimate direct selling companies allow you to “sell back” unsold products that are in good condition if you decide this isn’t your bag.
You set your work schedule, so that’s a plus. You’ll usually sell a company’s products through home or office parties and online sales. Earnings are commission-based-typically 25 percent to 40 percent of sales. With some companies, you can ramp up your income, by recruiting other salespeople to join your team. You then earn a commission for the products they sell, too.
Direct selling is not for slackers. You need to set monthly goals – how many new customers you will contact, how many parties will you hold, how many follow-ups with clients you will make. You can’t be timid about asking existing customers for referrals either. It’s all about getting your name out there and growing your business. An upside: Unlike starting a new business solo, where you’re responsible for the whole ball of wax, for the most part, your job is purely selling. The company makes the product, delivers it and has your back if you have customer complaints and other business questions.
For a list of direct selling companies with links back to each check out, go to Go to the Direct Selling Association for information on any specific direct selling company. Be aware that direct sales also encompasses other types of businesses, such as Multi-Level Marketing Companies, also referred to as MLM. In the past, some of them have been scrutinized for illegal practices, or pyramid schemes. Check with The Better Business Bureau to see if there have been complaints about a company in the past. And be prepared for an unsteady income. That’s the nature of the beast.
Median hourly pay: You can earn around $300 to $500 a month part-time, up to $1,000 or more full-time. Compensation systems are commission-based – 25 percent to $40 percent generally. You buy the products wholesale and sell them at retail prices. You can increase your earnings draw by recruiting, training, and mentoring new representatives at companies such as Avon.
Qualifications: About 16 million Americans work in direct marketing, according to the Direct Selling Association. The core backing you need is your own passion for the product. If you use it and understand how it works yourself, it’s easy to make a sales pitch from the heart. But some expertise can come in handy. If you’re selling make-up, for example, it helps to have some background in cosmetics and be capable of confidently offering beauty and skin care advice. The same holds true with cooking utensils, if you know your way around a kitchen, it helps. This is a customer-centric gig, so you need smooth people skills. and an ability to be at ease with one-to-one contact with your future customer. Creativity plays a role, too. Building sales stems from drumming up innovative ways to sell your product. Pull out the old soft shoe.Enjoy organizing large projects? This gig is for you. >>
5. Senior Move Manager
Nitty-gritty: Downsizing is your bailiwick. You are in charge of coordinating a move and configuring a new home set-up. Your typical client is someone relocating to smaller quarters, usually in a retirement community. He or she needs advice on choosing what furniture, artwork, china, collectibles and household goods make the cut to head over to the new digs. You tally up what can be sold, donated, or given to friends and family. You might even be in charge of shopping for new furniture that suits the new pad, or organizing and running an estate or yard sale. This job calls for configuring and cajoling. Must be handy with a tape measure.
Median pay range: Fees range from $30 per hour to $75+
Qualifications: Knowledge of interior design is essential. An “in” with a local realtor can jumpstart your business, as well as provide a steady clientele down the road. A calm, but take-charge demeanor is a desirable personality trait – no drama queens or kings here. For leads on jobs, stop by local realtor offices and visit retirement and assisted living communities in your area to ask about their future residents needs. Find out who is handling this type of work for them. These community’s management offices usually provide soon-to-be residents with recommendations for moving specialists to lend a hand with what can be a daunting endeavor for downsizers of any age. Hiring an unbiased expert can be invaluable. For more information on courses and certification, contact the National Association of Senior Move Managers. Must be compassionate, but ruthless.Kerry Hannon is the author of What’s Next? Follow Your Passion and Find Your Dream Job.
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