Conventional wisdom urges you not to make a career out of your hobby, but Alexander Garrett talks to two entrepreneurs who made the transition successfully. How did they manage it?
When Richard Savage pitches up at a hotel, the receptionist who enquires whether his visit is for business or pleasure might well be told 'both' Savage is a keen classical singer who has set up Specialised Travel, a west London-based company that provides travel services to touring musicians.
As an entrepreneur who has based his business on his favourite pastimes, Savage gets to indulge his twin passions of music and travel by accompanying orchestras on tour to some of the world's great cities and cultural centres. It's hard to find a better recipe for combining work with pleasure.
Yet according to Professor Sue Birley, director of the entrepreneurship centre at Imperial College, there can be both pluses and minuses for those who decide to turn their hobby into their livelihood. 'Quite a few people ignore the basic principles of business when they are driven by their own interests,' she says. 'They think: 'I've always been a keen gardener, I'll start a garden centre', without establishing how many customers they'll need each day or what level of sales they'll need to generate to cover their costs.'
It's also true that what once used to provoke unlimited enthusiasm can begin to seem like a chore when it's turned into a day job. But if, as Richard Savage has done, you get the balance right, there are probably few more fulfilling ways to earn a living.
Savage first became involved in organising musical tours as a student at Oxford, where he was president of the Schola Cantorum choir. On graduating, he turned down a job with one of the secret services in favour of joining a small student travel company as a tour leader, with the intention of seeing the world. Thirteen years later, in 1983, he bought the business and re-positioned it to cater for musicians, both amateur and professional.
Some 80% of Britain's classical musicians now entrust their worldwide travel arrangements to Specialised Travel, and the company has grown from three employees and a pounds 1 million turnover at the time of the buyout to 40 people and a pounds 16 million turnover. Clients include the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, as well as non-musical groups such as the Moscow State Circus, the England Rugby team and Michael Palin's television productions.
For Savage, touring with an orchestra can be extremely enjoyable. 'Musicians are usually a delightful bunch to travel with and you are visiting some wonderful places, where you tend to be very well looked after. I recently accompanied the BBC Symphony Orchestra on tour to South America, and I'll go with them to Australia and Kuala Lumpur in May.'
But it can easily become stressful. 'The worst part is that orchestras assume it is normal when everything goes right. But if it goes wrong they are looking for someone to blame, and they can be quite unreasonable and bad-tempered, especially if they are worried about getting back to other jobs.'
Once, he was about to take a 75-strong choir on to India from Taiwan when he received a message not to come: few tickets had been sold and there was no sponsor. Emergency arrangements had to be made to get everyone home via Hong Kong.
And the demands of prima donnas can put anyone's dedication to the test. One well-known Seventh Day Adventist conductor insists that somebody travel a day ahead of him to remove the mini-bar from each of his hotel rooms.
Savage readily admits that the lines between his business and private life are blurred - his wife is also a singer and most of their friends are musicians, many of them also clients. This can put great pressure on family life, he says. 'I didn't see much of my first two children growing up, and I'm doing my best to put that right with the youngest one.' The important thing, he has found, is to plan his life around the tours, since they are scheduled well in advance.
Savage also recognises that he could have earned more in another line of business. As he puts it: 'We are a successful player in the travel business, but travel generally doesn't pay well because the margins are very tight. I have friends from university who are very highly paid - maybe earning seven figures as a QC, say.'
But he has no regrets. 'They are jealous of me,' he points out, 'because I am being very reasonably paid to do something that I love doing.'
Edward Mills turned to his main leisure interest - wine - when he felt the need to do something new in his business career. For 15 years he had successfully run a firm of independent financial advisers. 'We'd got to a level where my staff could run the business on a day-to-day basis and all I needed to do was keep an eye on the cash and sales,' he says. In 1997, he realised that he 'wanted to get that 'zing' back. I'd lost the hunger I had when I started.'
Wine seemed an obvious choice. After he was introduced to his first tasting at eight or nine years old, Mills quickly developed an interest, and by the age of 18 he had a wine-rack in his bedroom. Over the years this interest developed into a passion, with annual holidays organised around French wine-growing regions and a collection that kept expanding, until in the mid-90s he had to have a cellar excavated under his home to house the 1,600-odd bottles. He has a second cellar at his holiday home near St Emilion containing another 1,000 or so bottles.
But the prospects for a new high street wine merchant near his home in Buckinghamshire weren't good: the area was already well served with supermarkets and national chains like Oddbins and Thresher. So Mills turned to the idea of an online wine retailer at a time when the opportunities of e-commerce were just beginning to be recognised. After nine months of preparation, itswine.com launched as the first pure-play internet wine retailer in the UK. 'We had spent less than pounds 3,000 in total and our first order came from Aberdeen,' says Mills.
Since then, the business has grown steadily to employ 11 people, with turnover up 74% to pounds 500,000 in 2001. With new backing from private investors, he expects to breach the pounds 1 million mark this year and the business to break into profit.
'Having a passion for the industry you work in is the most powerful motivator there is,' says Mills. 'It doesn't feel like it's just work - it feels as though I'm pursuing some greater good.'
Nevertheless, he recommends that you recognise your own limits. When itswine started, Mills made the selections himself, which provided a nice perk in being able to attend trade wine tastings, and broaden his own appreciation. But he concedes that it can be easy to think you know it all. When former Majestic Wines chairman Esme Johnson joined itswine, he brought on board Majestic's former purchasing director Rodney Kearns, who promptly took over the selection. 'I enjoyed that side of things,' says Mills, 'but you have to be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses. Rodney has been in the trade for 35 years, and I don't have the commercial training and experience that he has.'
Mills enjoys getting an insider view of the world of wine, whether that means chatting with vineyard owners in France or meeting the importers who supply itswine with product from further afield. Most of his time, though, is taken up with managing the business: organising distribution, managing staff and keeping an eye on the cashflow.
He advises anybody venturing down a similar path to look for a niche and stick to it: itswine caters mainly for the pounds 4-pounds 6 price range and Mills says this often means resisting the lure of more expensive wines. The business has also expanded into mail order and providing bespoke wine clubs for other companies, as well as wine books.
With his wife as co-director, Mills says that there is no real separation between work and life outside work. 'If I'm sitting in the evening with a glass of wine tapping out a letter to a customer, that doesn't really feel like work,' he says. But don't work seven days a week, he suggests. 'Your hobby-hunger should be partly satisfied by the new business, so make sure at least one complete day and night is spent not thinking about the business - it will keep you fresh and rejuvenate the hunger.'
For Mills, familiarity has certainly not bred contempt so far as his appreciation of wine is concerned. But he concedes that the dream trip to the Barossa Valley will have to wait until profitability is well and truly established.
HOW TO MIX BUSINESS WITH PLEASURE
- Don't let your enthusiasm for the product prevent you from making a realistic appraisal of the market. Be as hard-headed as you would be about setting up any other kind of business.
- Know your limitations. 'Just because you like consuming a product doesn't mean you know anything about shipping it or other aspects of the trade,' says Imperial College's Sue Birley. Bring in professional experience where you don't have it.
- Be clear about your ambitions. Do you want only to improve your quality of life or to make millions?
- Don't get so carried away with the project that it consumes your life. You could deplete your stores of enthusiasm before the business has even got going.
- What are you bringing to the party? A taste for mountaineering doesn't guarantee success in your outdoor clothing business. What will single you out from the competition?
- Phone a friend. 'Have a director or adviser you trust and respect, for whom this is not their hobby - and listen to them,' says Birley.