How I Became My Own Boss

from Profitable Hobbies, April 1948

I turned a hobby into a meal ticket. It happened this way. Twenty years ago I quit my job in an advertising agency because I didn’t like a remark the boss made to me. What he said was in effect, “You’re fired!” No come back to that. This was a real disaster because we had no reserve fund. Possibly I could have landed another advertising job, but I doubt it, because my heart wasn’t in the work. But my wife and youngster and I wanted to keep on eating. The older son Fred was in business for himself.

What to do, what to do!

For some time prior to being unhooked from the payroll I had been making toys for our 4-year-old. My workshop was the kitchen table in a small rented bungalow–we had no garage then, not even a car. Every night the tools and litter had to be cleared away. One of these toys was a little freighter complete with cargo hold, working booms and gear. It made quite a hit with the kids when launched in a Pasadena, California, park and a bystander said it ought to be shown in a magazine.

As I liked to draw, I made how-to-build-it plans and with description and snapshots, sent it to Popular Mechanics. A nice check came back so fast it was almost smoking. We were elated. Fancy making money as easily and as pleasantly as that! Figuring the time spent on this project compared to the amount paid, the rate was better than for writing advertising copy. Why, we could have pie and frogs’ legs for breakfast.

So I rushed out a couple of other toys. though still holding the city job, mailed the manuscripts and complacently waited for the checks. Well, you all know the story–a familiar pattern. Not only did these contributions return, but several others following. And to complete the gloomy picture it was right at this point that I was given the air at the advertising agency.

But I kept plugging along, sending out how-to-build stories, as there was nothing else to do, and turned out so many flops that Mary, my wife, referred to the workshop as a turkey ranch. But she never discouraged me. I was collecting quite a bale of rejection slips (later papered one wall of my office with them ), enriching Uncle Sam with stamp purchases, getting thinner myself, but learning what the editors didn’t want, eventually finding out what they did, and acquiring three regular customers.

The second month I made only $104, peanuts today but in 1928 one could buy a lot of groceries for that amount. The third month receipts dropped to $79.50 and I was pretty much concerned about the wisdom of this venture, even envied the garbage collector his regular wages.

The mood of the day was set by what came in the mail. I got to walking several blocks down the street to meet the postman, pretending I just ran into him casually and trying to restrain myself from snatching letters out of his hand. I could see a check right through any envelope. During this lean interval I tried to piece out with fiction, but the only story I sold brought $90 and took three weeks to write. It was a mystery thriller, but it was so back I blushed to see my by-line on it; I never did let Mary read it.

These were truly painful days, full of heartaches and past-due bills. Nothing is so humiliating as being poor. If our solvent friends invited us to dinner, they had to call for and deliver us, unless a bus or carline served them. We tried to sidestep these invitations, but alibis wore thin in time.

In spite of everything, I kept grinding away and the stuff began to click regularly. The second year we were able to move into a larger house with a garage–but empty. Christmas was approaching and among other things I built a low-slung sidewalk coaster, patterned after the then popular Stutz Bearcat. Although clumsy and old-fashioned compared to the sleek soap box racers of today, it was the high spot of that Christmas for our son, Sib, Jr., and the check I got for the story, along with two other smaller ones, enabled me to make a down payment on a good used car.

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We were getting on. I built a lean-to on the garage, partitioned off one end for an office, installed drawing board, typewriter and home-made files. A workbench was set up in the other end and for $54 (on the installment plan ) I bought a complete woodworking outfit, including a lathe, motor, lineshaft, circular saw and jig saw.

Of course, at that price the circular saw was pretty feeble and the jig saw nearly shook the rafters loose, but a surprising number and variety of projects were produced in that shop–animated figures operated by windmills, doll house and furniture for the little girl next door, a hydrogen-filled dirigible that actually rose in the air, wooden trains and trucks, bird and dog houses, scores of boats run by rubber bands, clockwork or steam. One was a two-foot submarine that submerged and surfaced over and over, powered by dry cells and a tiny motor. There was a torpedo, too, with counter-rotating propellers and a war head. When it struck a model boat a charge of flashlight powder exploded, blowing a cork out of the nose with a great bang, but not destroying torpedo or target.

Of course, we built a sizable pool to test these craft in, and this also made a profitable magazine article. In fact, everything we built was drawn up and sent to an editor. Once a neighbor, poking around in a pile of odds and ends, hauled out some bicycle spokes and two tin wash basins, and said: “Bet a dollar you can’t make anything out of this junk that you can sell.” Two weeks later I collected his dollar, and fifteen more, from an editor for a birdcage story.

That little workshop proved to be more than a mere means of livelihood. In it Sib, Jr., developed mechanical ability that earned him a position on the Lockheed engineering staff, and he is now research engineer for a prosperous syndicate. In his spare time he designs and builds devices that eventually appear in the national magazines.

When workshop ideas were temporarily exhausted, I scouted around with a big Graflex camera for garden subjects, barbecues, summer houses, lily pools and the like. This required poking through alleys and peeking over fences because you couldn’t see what there was from the front, and I was generally regarded with suspicion, especially by the dogs. And if I pushed the bell, the housewife often wouldn’t open the door, because she had seen me coming with that bulky camera and assumed I was selling some new gadget.

In time, however, this prejudice was overcome and I worked into the carriage trade for the smart house and garden publications. This took me to into the posh residential sections, where a butler opened the door, relayed my message to a maid who carried it upstairs to Madam; an appointment would be made by remote control for say, the following week. But frequently when I arrived on time with an expensive professional photographer, Madam may have found aphids on the orchids that morning and would be pouting and have nothing to do with us. This class of work, while profitable, is very trying. I advise beginners to stay clear of it. I much prefer the pleasant occupation of originating all the subjects at home.

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As the years went on, our place became headquarters for all the kids in the neighborhood and men as well as boys came from afar to see our shop and ask questions about something in the magazines; there were phone calls from strangers and so many interruptions that, flattering as all this was, work was seriously interfered with. We decided to move to some less accessible place.
To make a long story short, Mrs. Sibley had discovered an abandoned ranch near Nuevo, California, while on a motor trip with friends. It could be had at a bargain and was far enough away from metropolitan centers for peace and quiet. In fact, it was beyond power and telephone lines. There were no buildings on the place, but we put up a one-room frame cabin and a little studio up in a green canyon. It proved to be the smartest thing we ever did, for my volume of work has almost doubled with shorter hours.

In summer I begin work at 7 o’clock in the morning, knock off at noon, spend the rest of the day puttering in the garden, riding or fishing in our private pond stocked with bass, bluegill, crappie and monstrous frogs. Of course, this pond, as well as the cabin and new adobe ranch house, made two or three magazine articles apiece.

It is a perfect set-up. I do not make as much money as some of my industrial contemporaries, but I earn it and live my own life, which certainly they cannot with their exacting responsibilities. When they come out to relax over the week-end I ask my wife: “Mary, did you call up J. B. at the office and tell him I wouldn’t be down today?”
Corny, but I like to see our underprivileged city guests squirm.
Now, how to go about starting in this field.
If you have made something original, a toy, household convenience, garden furniture or what, get a good photograph and if possible, a series of half a dozen or so showing progressive steps in construction. These photographs are very important because that is what the editor sees first. If you haven’t the experience to get sharp definition as well as good composition, it will pay you to have a professional do the job. My own work is just average, using 3-1/4 by 4-1/4 film packs. If sharp enough, I send the negatives along with the contacts. But I much prefer the professional work and in spite of hundreds of dollars spent, find it an economy through higher magazine rates.
Next make your drawings on ordinary paper, say 18 by 22 inches, to be traced neatly on a good grade of tracing paper, using a pencil that doesn’t “mush” but makes a clean cut, dark line.
Lay out the plan, side and end views to scale, then an “exploded” perspective showing component parts as they are to be assembled. Try to tell the story in the details of drawing so that a minimum of type copy is required. For seasonable subjects, work four to six months ahead; that is, do the winter projects in summer and vice versa. I design a great deal of winter sports equipment, bobsleds, snowshoes, ice yachts, etc., with the temperature as high as 110 in the shade, perspiration dripping down on the drawing. And in the winter, beside a roaring fire I prepare boat and beach equipment plans.
Do not fail to enclose stamps, or better, a stamped, self-addressed return envelope. If you do not get a report in two weeks, don’t nag the editor–he is a hard working individual and a very considerate one. Also, let him appraise the value of your work; don’t set a price unless it is something very special. If your story does not click with the first editor, don’t be discouraged, try the next in line. I’ve had my stuff go to as many as eight different magazines before it was sold–though not recently. Knowing now what editors want, I rarely have to submit to a third.

When you find an interesting subject made by someone else, get his permission to publish and offer a percentage of your check. This builds good will for yourself as well as the magazine. I pay from 10 per cent upt to as much as 50 per cent where a lot of the work has been put in by the builder, and in cases where he has given me generously of his time explaining the project, so that my part of the job has been greatly simplified.

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