Ask An Expert: Turning A Hobby Into A Business

Q: My New Year’s resolution is to finally start my own business. I really love animals and am thinking that a pet store might be perfect for me. I would have to bootstrap it, but lot’s of other people seem to be able to start their dream business, so why can’t I? — Taylor

A: Turning your passion into profit truly is one of the best things there is, but it’s not always easy, and so the question is, how do you do so successfully?

To help answer your question, I sought out someone who has done just that. A couple of weeks ago, I caught an episode of NBC’s 1St Look TV, featuring a segment on what it called “the world’s best cheesecake,”

Rusty’s Famous Cheesecake out of Seattle, Washington. The world’s best cheesecake? Now we’re talking.

According to the NBC piece, Rusty’s Cheesecake has won the prestigious “Seattle’s Best Dessert” award two years in a row, and so it is no surprise that Rusty says he is on a “quest to bring the best cheesecake possible to the world.” Having had a piece of that nirvana myself at a Seattle restaurant not long ago, I decided to get in touch with Rusty Federman and find out how his quest got started, and how it’s going.

“My parents owned a deli when I was growing up, ” Rusty told me, “and so I learned to make cheesecake when I was young, using my mom Esther’s secret family recipe and then sharing them with family and friends.”

Rusty grew up to become a serial entrepreneur, with all sorts of business successes under his belt (as it were), including, I learned, a brand of clothing I used to wear a lot called B.U.M. Equipment.

Like many businesses born of love, Rusty’s Famous Cheesecake started out as a hobby, and at the same time, because it is something he is so passionate about, Rusty strived from the start to make the best product he could. “I worked to perfect my mom’s recipe, and then expand on it. Ours is an ultra-premium product, all natural, and I will only use the best ingredients,” he told me.

When I asked him how his business has received the accolades it has after being in business only a few years, Rusty explained that a lot of trial and error has gone into his cheesecakes. “Perfecting the recipe, bootstrapping the business, learning how to scale it, distribution, branding . . . it has all taken time and I had to be willing to make some mistakes along the way and learn from them.”

Lucky for us, he has.

Rusty told me about the time that he realized that to scale the business required that he bake his cakes in bigger batches. So he locked himself in his bakery for a weekend and tried dozens of recipes out to finally find which combination would stand up.

And when I say “for the weekend”, I mean for the weekend. One of the things that Rusty Federman has done right, right from the start, is keep his overhead low. “Buying or renting a full-blown kitchen is incredibly expensive,” he explained, and so what he does instead is rent an industrial ,8,500 square foot kitchen during it’s idle hours – from 5 pm to 5 am. “I’m a midnight baker,” says Rusty.

That sort of creativity is the kind of lesson any would-be entrepreneur would be wise to emulate.

When I asked Rusty for other entrepreneurial lessons he has learned along the way, he shared these tasty morsels:

• “It’s important to have multiple channels for sales.” Rusty is definitely preaching to the choir here as I have long advocated having multiple profit centers as the key to long-term sustainability for the small business. Rusty sells his cheesecakes wholesale, in retail markets, and in restaurants (branded, by the way, as “Rusty’s Famous Cheesecake”).

• “You also need multiple products.” Think Starbucks – how many combinations do they have? Rusty’s cheesecakes come in 50 different flavors, and four different sizes.

• “Create a dialogue with your customers and get feedback.” Rusty’s does this via social media. “It’s a great way to both communicate and market our business inexpensively.”

• And finally, “Be sure to align yourself with people who know more than you do.”

So take it from our pal Rusty Federman: Following your passion can be a tasty way to make a living as long as you cook it up right.

Today’s tip: One of the best advocates out there for American made products and manufacturing is actor John Ratzenberger, who not only of course played Cliff on Cheers, but is the only actor to be in every Pixar film (he’s shooting Toy Story 4 right now.)

This year, John has teamed up with the Made in America Store to offer some great holiday gift boxes as a “way to bring attention to this critical issue of putting our country back to work, keeping manufacturing alive and buying domestic made merchandise.” You can support this great cause, and buy some quality made in American-made products, by going here.