DIY Careers

Michigan has been a place for do-it-yourself careers since Ford rethought auto assembly and the Kellogg brothers decided we should all be eating cereal. And even today, when we've all been told to hang on to our jobs for dear life, that innovation is reigniting, one person at a time. From those who can't find the right job to those who are employed but see no room for growth, some Michigan job seekers have decided to become job inventors.

And as you might expect, the Ann Arbor area is leading the charge. Concentrate spotlights four entrepreneurs that wanted out of their secure jobs, and instead of fretting about the economy, found a way to harness their personal skills, invest in their passion, and use online connectivity to escape Michigan's economic woes without having to leave home.  

Deciding to leave

Being unhappy in one's job is never fun, but when all the economic indicators are telling you that there simply aren't any better options, it can feel torturous - even if the job itself isn't that bad.

"[The University of Michigan] is a wonderful place to work," says former UM employee and currently self-employed affiliate online marketer Amy Watson of Saline. "My job was in no jeopardy whatsoever, but I wasn't using my talents there."

So when the opportunity arose to become co-owner of the online company Optimal Webworks with her boyfriend and two others, she decided to leave. It felt counter-intuitive to choose the uncertainty of working for herself over regular pay and great benefits, but after a few months of consideration, she decided to take the leap. "I decided if I am going to make my life what I want it to be, I have to take this risk," she says. "There was a lot of anxiety. I wouldn't say the anxiety is gone yet, but the decision has been made."

Similarly, Lisa Waud, owner of Ann Arbor's Pot & Box, was happy in her job at Jerusalem Garden, but it just wasn't where her heart was. "I loved it," she says. "but even so, I always knew that I wanted to get back to gardening, and I wanted to run my own show."

Waud began to pick up freelance gardening jobs on the side, but it only took one season of overlapping both jobs for her to know it was too much. "Eventually I said, ‘OK, I have to take the step,'" she says. "It was scary. I was poor for a summer. But at some point you can't be giving part of your time to someone else."

For others, however, creating a job isn't so much leaping from the cliff of secure employment as it is inventing their own job security. Before opening her Ann Arbor-based letterpress design studio, Elevated Press, Michelle Baker had worked as an art teacher in Chicago and had been the coordinator of a non-profit art gallery in Oakland, Calif., among other positions. But when her dad became ill in Michigan, it was suddenly time to move home. "We made the decision to move back to Michigan," she says of herself and her then-fiancé. "We always loved it here and loved Ann Arbor."

Loving it here and having a solid employment background, however, did not change the economic outlook for Michigan in 2007. "I looked around at art galleries and I just wasn't finding anything," she says. "I tried a couple of part-time things, but they just weren't for me. And it just kind of happened that we were about to get married and I was really interested in letterpress invitations."

After struggling with the realities of starting a make-your-own press and the meticulous printing process for one batch of designs, Michelle found she'd stumbled upon a career. It helped that her now-husband, Peter Baker, had been operating his own website design and programming business, Elevated Works, for years at that point and could help support her start-up. When Peter began, he made his decision to go out on his own in part to help facilitate the move he and Michelle had made to San Francisco.

""I had offers out there to work for proper companies, but without knowing how long we were going to be there, I didn't want to rush into anything," he says. "I was freelancing on the side before and I felt I could probably do enough of that to make it."

Connecting to a better economy

Peter Baker's ability to remain a viable one-man operation in a tough economy is based primarily on two things: a knowledge gap and living in Michigan. "What I'm doing right now is based on knowing how to do something other people need someone to do," he says. "But if I didn't know how to do this, I'd try to figure out how to do something else people would need."

Web design expertise certainly gives him a leg up in that pursuit. But despite the oft-repeated rants about the "brain drain" from Michigan, Peter cites locating his highly-specialized skills at work here as a boon to his business.

"We are somewhat insulated from the Michigan economy, though we certainly benefit from the cost of living being so low here," he says. "A budget is a budget. If it costs us three times as much to live in California. That doesn't mean we can charge clients three times as much." With many of his clients based on either coast, Peter is able to reap the benefit of more affluent areas, while bringing that money back to Michigan where overhead is much lower.  "And when everything is covered, we just work less," he says, "It's a lifestyle choice."

Likewise, his wife Michelle's largest clients are largely outside Michigan, and though her work isn't web-based, her marketing is, which has made that possible. "Because of the economic factors, there was actually more opportunity to start something here," she says.

Utilizing the web to reach economies outside Michigan seems to be a key to many new entrepreneurs' success, including Watson. She now spends her days working on "the R&D of being an online presence," sometimes in her pajamas and often on the couch. And potentially, she likes to remind herself, from a beach.

"I feel extremely lucky," Watson said. "Michigan is suffering, and yet when I hear that on the news it doesn't even seem real to me. It's like my house is in a different country." With her work being entirely online and her clients spanning the globe, it just as easily could be. "The Internet economy is in a completely different state right now. People are buying things, they're clicking on things. Things aren't slow there."

Even Waud, whose gardening services are intrinsically local, has benefited from online connectivity - as well as the unemployment rate. "Everyone is so connected now," she says, "it's unbelievable how quickly you can get the word out, blasting things out on Facebook and Twitter and through my blog. Now when newspapers and radio call for advertising, I'm so busy I don't need to. It's a really wild time."

Not only was Waud able to create her own job, but she now creates jobs during her busy seasons. Thanks to so many people needing work, she has had no shortage of resumes coming in. "I don't have any full-time employees yet, but I do have a few part-time people who I can call in," she says. "It's great to know I can create jobs. I can employ up to six people in the summer."

Living the passion

Making the leap and using the Michigan economy to their advantage doesn't complete the success equation for these DIY careers. All four insist that it wouldn't be possible without a deep love for what they're doing.

Michelle Baker recalls the ordeal of printing her own wedding invitations as a boot camp for life as a letterpress printer. "It was messy, and it took me two solid weeks to print them, which was totally insane," she says. "But at the end I realized, as crazy as this is, I really love it."

"Sometimes I lament not having a whistle blown at the end of the day," says Peter Baker. "I would love not having this on my mind all the time, but I can't see it being any other way. You have to work at it constantly or you aren't going to get a paycheck. You have to live it."

Watson agrees. "You have to work all the time," she says. It won't happen if you don't make it happen all day, every day.

"Sometimes I still wince when I pay my Cobra," she adds. "My eyes trickle. But I think, ‘you are succeeding, you are able to pay this, and you can work from Switzerland.' I have to have a mental pep rally."

"This job is three times the hours I worked as waitress, and three time the stress, but I love it," says Waud. "My love of gardening and flowers is what makes it possible. I can't play music; I can't paint beautiful pictures. This is how I express myself creatively. And it's worth it."

Natalie Burg is a writer who loves to say good things about downtowns, communities, and the people who believe in making them amazing. This is her first article for Concentrate.

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All photos by Doug Coombe


Michelle and Peter Baker with their vintage printing press at their west side Ann Arbor studio

Amy Watson at home with Sam Jones and their dachshund Pixel

Lisa Waud at Pot & Box on Ann Arbor's west side

Peter Baker with the sweet light table he got at Recycle Ann Arbor for a hundred bucks

Michelle Baker in front of some of her handiwork

Lisa Waud with some sweet vases she scored at Recycle Ann Arbor

Pixel and Amy Watson

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